Ohio Representative Jim Jordan spent most of Wednesday’s impeachment hearings criticizing the witnesses who testified, the Democratic lawmakers who called them, and the inquiry itself. He also reiterated a common demand among President Donald Trump’s allies: bring forward the anonymous civil servant whose complaint helped surface the Ukraine scandal. “There is one witness that they won’t bring in front of us, they won’t bring in front of the American people,” Jordan said, referring to House Democrats. “That’s the guy who started it all: the whistleblower.”
After Jordan yielded his time, Vermont Representative Peter Welch gave a barbed retort before turning to his own questions for the witnesses. “I’d be glad to have the person who started it all,” he told the Ohio Republican from across the committee hearing room. “President Trump is welcome to come in and sit down right there.” The jab elicited a murmur of laughter throughout the audience and plaudits from Trump’s critics on social media.
Whether intentionally or not, Welch raised a good point. Trump has vociferously asserted that he didn’t do anything wrong in his July 25 conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. He regularly insists that the phone call was “beautiful” and “perfect,” and that he’s being framed by vindictive Democrats who are trying to mount a coup against him. If the president feels that strongly about it, the House of Representatives should give him the opportunity to make his case in person before lawmakers and the American public.
It would be extraordinary for a president to testify before Congress on any matter, let alone his own impeachment. But it’s not without precedent. Three sitting presidents have testified in some way before lawmakers over the past 230 years, according to the Senate Historical Office. In 1789, George Washington appeared before the entire Senate alongside his secretary of war to discuss a treaty with Indian tribes; senators eventually voted to get his answers in writing instead. Abraham Lincoln also quietly testified before the House Judiciary Committee in 1862 to discuss who had leaked part of his State of the Union message to a newspaper before he sent it to Congress. He assured lawmakers that no one in his family was responsible.
The third and most relevant instance took place 112 years later. One month after he took office in 1974, Gerald Ford shocked the country by granting a full pardon to his predecessor Richard Nixon for any crimes committed during the Watergate crisis. In a televised address, Ford said that Nixon and his family had “suffered enough” during the national ordeal, and that he wanted to provide a sense of closure to the scandal. “My conscience tells me it is my duty, not merely to proclaim domestic tranquility but to use every means that I have to insure it,” he said. “I do believe that the buck stops here, that I cannot rely upon public opinion polls to tell me what is right.”
Ford’s decision to not rely on polls cost him dearly. In the days before his announcement, a Gallup poll for Newsweek magazine found that 58 percent of Americans opposed any pardon for Nixon. Ford’s approval rating plunged from a lofty 71 percent shortly after taking office to 49 percent immediately after the decision. Public speculation quickly arose as to whether Ford had struck some kind of corrupt bargain with Nixon, implicitly or explicitly bartering a pardon in exchange for the presidency. Ford unequivocally denied that any such deal had been made in a news conference the following week.
Congress also grew cold towards Ford, who had been House Minority Leader less than a year earlier. Two Democratic representatives, New York’s Bella Abzug and Michigan’s John Conyers, filed resolutions in the House demanding more information about the circumstances surrounding Ford’s decision to pardon Nixon. The House Judiciary Committee also asked the president to send a representative who could explain his actions. Ford responded to the request by saying he would appear himself because he felt, according to the White House, “as president the power of pardon is solely his.” He ultimately appeared before a House Judiciary subcommittee on October 17.
It was an unusual hearing, to say the least. The committee did not place the president under oath and members treated him with a heightened level of respect and deference compared with normal witnesses. “I assure you that there never was at any time any agreement whatsoever concerning a pardon to Mr. Nixon if he were to resign and I were to become president,” he assured lawmakers. Ford also reiterated his original reason for issuing the pardon. “I wanted to do all I could,” he testified, “to shift our attention from the pursuit of a fallen president to the pursuit of the urgent needs of a rising nation.” Though the public furor largely abated after his testimony, Ford and most others believed the pardon contributed to his defeat in 1976.
House investigators today have little reason to believe that Trump would obey a formal congressional subpoena for his testimony. The White House’s official stance is that the impeachment inquiry is an unconstitutional and illegitimate attempt by Democrats to illicitly overturn the results of the 2016 election. Trump’s lawyers have instructed the executive branch not to comply with House subpoenas and document requests with mixed success. And Trump himself would almost certainly challenge such a subpoena all the way to the Supreme Court, which could deliver a ruling that further weakens Congress.
But there is no harm in asking Trump to voluntarily appear before the House Intelligence Committee or the House Judiciary Committee to explain his actions in the Ukraine scandal. One of Trumpworld’s most persistent critiques of the evidence against Trump is that it comes from second-hand and third-hand sources. As I noted on Wednesday, this is a disingenuous argument to make while the White House is blocking key first-hand witnesses from testifying. Asking the president to freely give his own version of events before the committee, the cameras, and the country would underscore the absurdity of the White House’s stance towards the inquiry.
Trump wouldn’t be the first president to give formal testimony in an investigation during the presidency. Just Security’s Andy Wright noted last year that Ronald Reagan gave a deposition as a witness in one of the Iran-Contra investigations, and that Bill Clinton testified before the Whitewater grand jury as part of the independent counsel’s inquiry. Clinton also gave a civil deposition in the Paula Jones sexual-harassment lawsuit, portions of which later became key elements of the House’s impeachment case against him. No president has ever testified before Congress in his own impeachment proceedings, though Wright noted that Andrew Johnson expressed an interest in doing so before his advisors counseled him against it.
In 1974, Ford said that his appearance was not meant to set a precedent for his successors. No sitting president has testified before Congress in any way since then. His decision nonetheless confirmed that a president in the modern era can appear before lawmakers to explain their actions when the situation warrants it. The House also has an opportunity to set a precedent of its own. The story of the Trump era is partly the story of an executive branch that accumulated too much power at the expense of the legislature. Restoring the proper balance between Congress and the White House is a more ambitious long-term project than House lawmakers can currently handle. Reminding the nation that a president can be called to answer before the people’s house, however, is a good start.