It was hard to keep track amid the daily deluge of controversial tweets and distractions that were a hallmark of the Trump presidency. And some of the most egregious abuses of power weren’t clear at the time but came into focus after exhaustive investigations.
To chronicle Trump’s most consequential abuses of power, CNN spoke with a politically diverse group of constitutional scholars, presidential historians and experts on democratic institutions.
While these 16 experts did not agree on everything, there was consensus that Trump’s pattern of abusing his powers for personal or political gain reached an alarming level that hasn’t been seen in modern history, and will have long-lasting consequences for the future of American democracy.
Here is a breakdown of Trump’s 10 most significant abuses of power.
#1: Subverting the 2020 election
There is broad agreement among experts that Trump’s most severe abuse of power was his relentless effort to undermine the 2020 election and overturn the legitimate results.
Michael Paulsen, a conservative legal scholar and professor at the University of St. Thomas, in Minnesota, called it a “form of a political coup d’état against our Constitution.”
Throughout the 2020 campaign, Trump spread provably false disinformation about the voting process. He even floated the idea of unconstitutionally delaying the election, leading to a bipartisan rebuke.
“Nothing remotely compares to this,” said Akhil Amar of Yale Law School, who is among the most-cited constitutional scholars in the country. “His actions since the election have threatened the very existence of our constitutional democracy. This looms large in the history of not just this administration, but the history of America. This is what history will remember most harshly.”
“Trump has put more pressure on the integrity of the election process than any individual in modern American history. There has never been anything on this scale,” said Rick Hasen, a former CNN analyst and election law expert who teaches at the University of California, Irvine.
#2: Inciting an insurrection
“This in and of itself puts Trump in the lowest circle of hell among America’s presidents, along with the likes of James Buchanan and Andrew Johnson,” Amar said.
“It is not far-fetched to argue that he should have anticipated that his false election claims and incitement to march on the Capitol to ‘stop the steal’ would have devastating consequences,” said Ross Garber, a Tulane Law School professor who previously defended four Republican governors that faced impeachment.
“The founders intended that the office of the president be held by people with sufficient virtue,” said Franita Tolson, a constitutional law professor at the University of Southern California. “They recognized the risk of someone who is a tyrant abusing the office, but they didn’t build a system to prevent it. The question is, will we learn from this, and alter our Constitution to prevent this from happening again?”
#3: Abusing the bully pulpit
Many of the experts pointed to Trump’s inflammatory and divisive rhetoric as a stark abuse of power, albeit not criminal, and probably not impeachable either. But they said Trump abused the bully pulpit by using his platform to brazenly spread lies and conspiracies, attack political opponents of all stripes, and praise bad actors like white nationalists and authoritarian leaders.
CNN and other news outlets fact-checked thousands of lies that Trump told during his tenure, far surpassing the cherry-picked political spin or occasional whoppers told by past presidents.
“Trump abused the bully pulpit to intimidate witnesses, literally bully people and spread disinformation. It’s never been done on the scale that he did it,” said Michael Gerhardt, a law professor at the University of North Carolina who testified as a Democratic witness in favor of impeachment in 2019
Many of Trump’s comments debased the public discourse and were blatantly racist or fanned the flames of existing divisions. Others were detrimental to public health. Last year, he often downplayed the risks of Covid-19 and promoted unproven treatments. The experts said these were shameful misuses of his bully pulpit that literally put Americans in danger.
Larry Diamond, an expert on democratic governance at the Hoover Institution, said Trump “has massive responsibility for creating the normative atmosphere in which extremism, hatred, racial bigotry and violent imagery have prospered and metastasized.” Diamond noted Trump’s refusal to condemn white supremacists at the 2017 Charlottesville rally to his praising of QAnon in late 2020.
“The amount of lies that came out of this presidency was corrosive to our political culture,” said Joe Goldman, president of the Democracy Fund, a nonpartisan foundation that studies voter attitudes toward democratic institutions and works to strengthen democracy. “In theory, you could pass new laws to address many of the norm violations we saw under Trump. But earning back people’s trust is much harder to do.”
#4: Politicizing the Justice Department
Trump politicized the Justice Department and FBI from the very start of his presidency until the final days. He repeatedly crossed lines and violated norms that have been in place since Watergate to create independence between the White House and federal law enforcement.
“It’s extremely important for the integrity of American democracy that the president cannot manipulate law enforcement for partisan, political, self-interested preferences,” said Rick Pildes, a former CNN legal analyst who teaches at New York University. “Trump constantly agitated to eliminate the boundaries between a President and the DOJ, which was incredibly disturbing.”
#5: Obstructing the Mueller investigation
“The offenses in the Mueller report make a powerful and overwhelming case for obstruction of justice and political corruption,” said Paulsen, the conservative legal scholar. “To some extent, it was criminal. To some extent, it was non-criminal corruption. Mueller couldn’t get to the full scope because of the obstruction.”
“In my view, that is a clear act of obstruction,” Zeldin said. “The sole intention was to interfere with the investigation. There is no other explanation for it.”
#6: Abusing the pardon power
The Constitution places almost no limits on presidential commutations and pardons for federal crimes, and many past presidents have granted controversial pardons, especially in their final weeks in office. But the experts agreed that Trump took this phenomenon to new extremes.
“I thought Bill Clinton abused the pardon power at the end of his term. But what we’re seeing from Trump makes Clinton look trivial in comparison,” said Diamond, from the Hoover Institution, referring to Clinton’s controversial pardons to associates and allies on his last day in office.
“He used the pardon as a tool to entrench himself in power and to subvert the legal system,” said Manheim, the constitutional specialist at the University of Washington School of Law.
“I think the president’s pardon power is essentially unlimited. I even think he can pardon himself for past crimes,” Paulsen said. “Nonetheless, to abuse the pardon power like Trump has, while not unconstitutional, it is surely impeachable and deserves condemnation.”
#7: The Ukraine affair and cover-up
“This clearly looked like an extremely inappropriate quid-pro-quo offer,” said Susan Rose-Ackerman, a law professor at Yale University who has written books about political corruption.
“There has always been tension between the President and Congress over investigations of the White House,” said Pildes, the legal expert from New York University. “But we never had a president who stonewalled Congress and made it this difficult for Congress to perform one of its most important functions — oversight of the White House.”
“Seeking a foreign nation’s help to prosecute a US citizen, that’s an exercise of the president’s foreign relations power,” said Paulsen, the conservative legal scholar. “The problem is the misuse of that power for personal political gain, and it’s clear that’s what Trump did. That is impeachable, and this is the big one that got away.”
#8: Loyalty oaths and personalizing government
“Trump’s demand that government actors pledge loyalty to him, as opposed to the law or to the constitution, is a corruption of the rule of law, and it’s a corruption of government institutions,” Pildes said.
“Under Donald Trump, it was almost impossible to tell who was purportedly working on behalf of the government and who was working for Trump personally. That has significant consequences,” said Garber, the impeachment expert, referring to Trump’s legal team during his 2019 impeachment.
“To the extent that a president tries to use his own authority to pressure executive branch officials to be loyal to him rather than to the law, that undermines on a fundamental level the governmental level the structure that we’ve set up,” Manheim said.
“We only have a limited window into how much he tried to bully, manipulate, distort and threaten officials who were just doing their constitutional duty,” said Nancy Gibbs, a presidential historian and former editor in chief of Time Magazine who now runs Harvard University’s political research shop.
#9: Firing whistleblowers and truth-tellers
As someone who demanded absolute loyalty, Trump didn’t react well when officials disagreed with him, either publicly or privately. Officials often lost their jobs if Trump felt like they weren’t doing his bidding, or if they contradicted him in public, even to stand up for the truth.
“I have a strong view of presidential power,” Paulsen said. “These are actions that are within the president’s constitutional powers. But it’s still an abuse to use those powers for corrupt personal purposes.”
“The President can fire an ambassador, but Trump fired Gordon Sondland because Sondland was a whistleblower against him — and that’s an abuse of power. If you punish someone for exercising their rights, you are violating those rights,” said Gerhardt, who testified in favor of impeachment in 2019.
“There has been real damage to expertise across the government. The civil servants have to be able to speak honestly without fear of being fired unless they’ve done something wrong,” said Kim Scheppele, a professor at Princeton University whose research focuses on the collapse of constitutional governments. “Why would anyone want to go into the public sector anymore?”
#10: Profiting off the presidency
“It is reflective of his own moral compass. It is showing the way in which he thinks about his role as president,” said Rose-Ackerman, the Yale professor who studies political corruption. “It isn’t tied so much to a million dollars here or a million dollars there. It’s tied to his perspective about what it means to be president — that he sees it as giving him free range to do things.”
“We’ve depended on a combination of legal requirements and norms to prevent conflicts of interest and self-dealing,” said Deborah Hellman, a University of Virginia law professor who studies political corruption. “Once norms get broken, it’s hard to put them back together again.”
This was yet another situation where Trump skirted norms and benefited from the fact that the laws on the books aren’t really designed to deal with a president with his own global business.
“What Trump figured out — the autocrats that I study, like Orban in Hungry, Erdogan in Turkey and Bolsonaro in Brazil, they all do this — they operate in this space where no law actually prohibits, but soft norms govern. And because there is no law, it’s hard to hold them to account. That’s how democracies collapse,” said Scheppele, the Princeton expert on failed governments.
CNN’s Hannah Rabinowitz contributed to this story.