Criminally Charging a Head of State: How Rare Is It?

Photo: AFP (Left) and John Vanderlyn (1775 - 1852) Oil on canvas, 1802 (Right)
Photo: Benjamin Netanyahu – AFP (Left); Aaron Burr – John Vanderlyn (1775 – 1852) Oil on canvas, 1802 (Right)

The indictment of President Trump is unprecedented in United States history as no American President has ever been the subject of criminal charges.  However, it has happened to numerous other leaders, including those from countries that are generally regarded as functioning democracies.  Set forth below is just a partial list of former (and in some cases current) heads of state who have been criminally charged.

  • Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – Israel 
  • President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva – Brazil
  • President Nicolas Sarkozy – France
  • Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi – Italy
  • President Christian Wulff – Germany
  • President Park Geun-hye – South Korea
  • President Chen Shui-bian – Taiwan
  • President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner – Argentina

While no former American President has ever been indicted, two former Vice Presidents have been the target of criminal proceedings.  In 1807, former Vice President Aaron Burr, who infamously killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel, was arrested and charged with treason for plotting to annex Spanish territory in Louisiana and Mexico to be used toward the establishment of an independent republic.  He was later acquitted.  In 1973, Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned and later pled no contest to one felony charge, tax evasion, for events that occurred before he assumed the Vice Presidency.  Agnew was fined $10,000 and placed on three years’ unsupervised probation.

Of course, the Watergate scandal of the 1970s produced numerous indictments of high government officials and President Richard Nixon himself was named as an unindicted co-conspirator.  He may well have faced further charges after he resigned had he not been pardoned by President Gerald Ford in 1974.

So, while indicting President Trump is controversial and undoubtedly divisive, it does have some historical context and is not, as some of his supporters claim, inherently undemocratic.


This article is intended as a general discussion of these issues only and is not to be considered legal advice or relied upon. For more information, please contact RPJ Partner Alice K. Jump who counsels clients on litigation, alternative dispute resolution and business counseling, with particular emphasis on representing clients in the financial services and real estate industries as well as educational and non-profit institutions. Ms. Jump is admitted to practice law in New York and before the United States District Courts for the Southern and Eastern Districts of New York and the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.