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.
After Trump lost, he falsely claimed victory and pressured election officials in battleground states to fraudulently throw out millions of votes for President Joe Biden. The most memorable example was Trump’s hour-long call with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, when he harangued the GOP official to “find” just enough votes to nullify Biden’s narrow victory in that state.
Trump’s legal team filed dozens of meritless lawsuits alleging fraud, which were rejected by a bipartisan array of federal and state judges, and the Supreme Court. When these efforts failed, Trump unsuccessfully tried to coerce then-Vice President Mike Pence to unlawfully override the Electoral College process and block Biden’s victory in Congress.
Subverting the election
“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.”
Along the way, the Trump administration dragged its feet on the formal transition of power, which was delayed for weeks while Trump refused to acknowledge defeat. Biden said his team was met with “obstruction” from Trump appointees at the Pentagon and White House. Trump’s efforts to undermine the transition are unprecedented in modern American history, the experts said.
“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
Trump’s attempts to cling to power reached a horrifying crescendo on January 6, when he incited a large gathering of supporters in Washington to attack the US Capitol while the electoral votes were being counted.
“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.
At a rally before the attack, Trump urged supporters to march to the Capitol and “fight like hell,” telling them, “You’ll never take back our country with weakness, you have to show strength.” The protests quickly transformed into a violent mob, which overran police barriers and stormed the building. The occupation was quelled after several hours of violent clashes, which led to five deaths.
“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.
Inciting an insurrection
Figures from both parties labeled the attack an insurrection and blamed Trump for the violence, which killed one police officer and four rioters. No US president, with the possible exception of Andrew Johnson, has ever fomented a violent uprising against lawmakers, though Trump denies responsibility.
The incident led to Trump’s second impeachment by the House, in the most bipartisan impeachment vote in US history, for “incitement of insurrection.” The Senate is expected to begin Trump’s trial on February 9.
“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
Abusing the bully pulpit
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.”
The experts ranked this among Trump’s worst abuses because his goal was often to twist the Justice Department to serve his own needs — not the national interest. A clear pattern emerged where Trump leaned on law enforcement to protect him and his allies, and to harass his critics. This created a tense atmosphere with some resignations and public rebukes.
Politicizing the Justice Department
During his four years, Trump publicly urged the FBI to investigate more than two dozen of his perceived opponents, including several Democratic lawmakers, some of the prosecutors and FBI officials involved in the Russia investigation, Biden’s son Hunter Biden, the tech company Google, and even the author of the infamous 2018 “anonymous” op-ed in The New York Times.
While most of these abuses were rhetorical in nature, he took some overt actions that triggered scrutiny from criminal investigators, like his 2017 firing of then-FBI Director James Comey, which led to the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller to investigate Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
“By politicizing (the Justice Department) now, and frankly by engaging in a lot of conduct that appears to be illegal, President Trump undermined the ability of the department to proceed in a clear way going forward,” said Lisa Manheim, a University of Washington law professor who specializes in constitutional issues and co-wrote a 2018 book about the limits of presidential power.
#5: Obstructing the Mueller investigation
The Mueller investigation dominated the first three years of Trump’s presidency. Angry over an investigation that he felt was illegitimate, Trump repeatedly lashed out at Mueller and took steps to undermine and obstruct the sprawling criminal probe. Mueller investigated 10 episodes and found persuasive evidence that Trump’s actions fit the legal criteria to warrant criminal charges.
But Mueller decided not to make an up-or-down decision on whether to charge Trump, citing Justice Department rules against indicting a sitting president and the difficult constitutional questions that would make for a challenging prosecution. Instead, Mueller famously said, “If we had had confidence that the President clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so.”
Mueller’s cryptic refusal to clear Trump’s name was quickly washed away by Trump’s often-repeated lie that Mueller gave him “total and complete exoneration,” a false claim he and his allies parroted dozens of times.
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.”
The experts had mixed views on Trump’s possible criminal exposure. Some said there was strong proof that Trump broke the law, while others said some of the alleged episodes of obstruction would be difficult to prosecute.
Michael Zeldin, a former CNN legal analyst who previously worked for Mueller at the Justice Department, said there were one or two incidents that were strong and prosecutable obstruction crimes, including when Trump ordered his White House counsel to write a memo falsely stating that Trump never ordered him to fire Mueller.
“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.
Trump eschewed the regular process and almost never consulted with the Justice Department’s clemency office, leading to some highly controversial pardons. Some of the experts said that while allowable, these pardons undercut anti-corruption efforts and undermined the rule of law.
Abusing the pardon power
Mueller found some evidence that Trump obstructed justice by publicly urging ex-aides not to cooperate and dangling pardons in exchange for loyalty. Trump closed the loop in December 2020 by pardoning former aides Roger Stone, Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn and George Papadopoulos, who were convicted of lying or obstructing the Mueller probe, among other crimes.
“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.
In one of his final acts in office, Trump pardoned his former strategist Steve Bannon, who was charged in 2020 with defrauding Trump supporters in a “build the wall” scheme. The pardon was especially controversial, given Bannon’s violent rhetoric and ties to “stop the steal” groups that attacked the Capitol.
Trump also pardoned prominent Republicans who were early boosters of his 2016 campaign, and used footage of a pardon ceremony for political purposes at the 2020 Republican National Convention. He never followed through, but Trump openly mused about pardoning himself, claiming multiple times that he could if he wanted to, even though that claim is untested and legally dubious.
“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
Trump is one of three presidents to get impeached, a fate he first faced in 2019 after pressuring the Ukrainian government to help his reelection campaign by announcing a baseless investigation into the Bidens. As part of the scheme, Trump unlawfully withheld nearly $400 million in much-needed military aid from Ukraine, even though Congress appropriated the funds with bipartisan support.
“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.
The Ukraine affair and cover-up
The Trump White House told government officials and agencies not to cooperate with the Democratic-run House impeachment inquiry, and many officials defied subpoenas for testimony or documents. Yet, other Trump administration officials from the National Security Council, State Department, and Pentagon testified under oath and implicated Trump.
“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.”
Trump’s impeachment was a heated partisan affair: The House impeached Trump with only Democratic votes, and just one Senate Republican voted to convict Trump, who was acquitted on both articles.
Many of the experts said Trump’s dealings with Ukraine were wholly inappropriate for a sitting president. There is debate over whether his actions were impeachable — or separately, maybe even part of a criminal conspiracy. But there is strong consensus that he inappropriately used the powers of his office to benefit his reelection campaign, and that his blanket stonewalling of Congress was improper.
“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
A recurring theme of the Trump presidency was the personalization of government, with Trump regularly conflating his interests with the national interests, and demanding personal loyalty from nearly everyone around him in 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.
This pattern first came into focus when Comey revealed to the public that Trump demanded “loyalty” from him during a private meeting in early 2017 — an inappropriate request from any sitting President to an FBI chief. As the years went on, it became clear that Cabinet members and top officials could only survive if they put on a show for Trump, showering him with praise and platitudes.
Loyalty oaths and personalizing government
“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.
This is an abuse of power, the experts said, because it subverts the loyalty that Trump and his aides are supposed to swear to the constitution, and usurps it with personal loyalty to one man’s whims.
“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.
The experts pointed out that there were trickle-down effects from Trump’s behavior. Many White House aides were flagged for violating the Hatch Act, the toothless federal law that prohibits executive branch officials from using their jobs for political purposes. In a brazen flouting of the spirit of this law, Trump delivered his 2020 GOP convention speech from the White House lawn, which had never been done before.
“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.
There were firings, forced resignations and premature departures, which ramped up in Trump’s final year. The experts agreed Trump had the authority to take these actions, but they said he crossed a line by clearly retaliating against officials for personal reasons without good cause.
“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.”
Some of the most egregious examples stemmed from Trump’s impeachment. After his acquittal, he purged several officials who testified against him, like US Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland as well as Lt. Col Alexander Vindman from the National Security Council.
Firing whistleblowers and truth-tellers
“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.
Trump also removed inspectors general that uncovered wrongdoing by his administration, and fired Chris Krebs, the top election security official who publicly debunked his voter fraud conspiracies.
He also relentlessly attacked whistleblowers who spoke out against him, including the anonymous intelligence official whose complaint triggered his impeachment, as well as Dr. Rick Bright, the former public health official who publicly criticized Trump’s failed pandemic response in early 2020.
“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
Trump was the first billionaire to ascend to the presidency. When he took the mantle in 2017, he defied the near-universal advice from ethics specialists and refused to divest from his international business empire. Instead, Trump temporarily turned over control of his company to his adult sons, which he said his lawyers cleared from a conflict-of-interest standpoint.
The biggest issue, the experts said, was the appearance of a massive conflict of interest.
“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.”
Trump spent considerable time at his own properties and golf clubs, substantially raising their profile, and even making money from the federal government along the way. Trump’s company billed the US government millions of dollars, including for Secret Service agents to stay at his properties while protecting him.
His high-end hotel in Washington, DC, became a mainstay for GOP insiders and lobbyists, and even some foreign officials, who were accused of buying influence by booking rooms. (The Trump Organization said it voluntary donated all profits from foreign governments to the United States Treasury.)
Profiting off the presidency
“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.”
Some of the experts said there are serious questions about Trump’s potential violations of the Emoluments Clause of the US Constitution, which bans federal officials from taking payments from foreign governments. DC-area businesses, as well as Democratic lawmakers and attorneys general, tried to go after Trump in the courts, but progress has been slow.
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.