Five landmark moments of testimony to Congress
The impeachment process against President Trump will enter a new phase this week, as televised hearings begin.
Here are five instances where past congressional hearings delivered major drama.
Watergate hearings, 1973
This is the template that Trump’s foes hope will be followed now.
President Nixon’s approval ratings dropped precipitously after the impeachment process against him began. Televised hearings were a key factor.
Gallup found 71 percent of the adult population saying they watched some part of the hearings, and more than 20 percent saying they had watched 10 hours or more.
The three major TV networks — ABC, CBS and NBC — all gave major coverage to the events. PBS at the time would re-run testimony in prime time — something it repeated on 51 nights in 1973, according to a recent Washington Post story.
A steady drip of damaging information hurt Nixon, but testimony from Alexander Butterfield was particularly catastrophic.
Butterfield, a deputy assistant to the president, revealed that there was a secret taping system in place at the White House. His testimony, on July 16, 1973, was carried live on national television.
With that, the die was cast.
Nixon pursued almost every avenue to avoid releasing the tapes. A year after Butterfield’s testimony, the Supreme Court ordered they had to be turned over. They revealed Nixon trying to improperly stop the FBI’s investigation into the original Watergate burglary.
The following month, he became the first and — so far — only president to resign from office.
Oliver North, 1987
North was brought before Congress amid investigations into the Iran-Contra affair, which marred President Reagan’s second term in office.
Though the specifics were complicated the basics were simple.
The Reagan administration wanted the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua toppled, but Congress had outlawed direct aid to the right-wing insurgents known as the Contras. To get around that, a plan was cooked up to provide aid to the Contras “off the books” — in part by making arms sales to Iran and then funneling the money to the Contras.
North, then a lieutenant colonel in the Marines and a member of Reagan’s National Security Council, was accused of having played a central role in the scheme.
North played a deft public relations game, presenting himself as someone who was acting on the instructions of his superiors and who had done nothing morally wrong.
“I am not ashamed of anything in my professional or personal conduct,” North said in his opening statement in July 1987.
Conservatives hailed North as a patriotic man of action. Liberals insisted he was operating with flagrant disregard for the law.
In the courts, North was later convicted on three felony counts. Those convictions were ultimately voided.
He would go on to become a conservative media commentator.
Now 76, he was in the news again in April when he was ousted as president of the National Rifle Association amid internal turmoil.
Anita Hill, 1991
Hill’s testimony during the nomination hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas put sexual harassment into the public spotlight in a way that no one had done before.
Thomas has been nominated by President George H.W. Bush as a replacement for Thurgood Marshall, the first black Supreme Court justice.
Hill came forward to claim that Thomas, who had been her boss at two government agencies, had pressured her to date him and made numerous inappropriate sexual comments — including, in one memorable instance, asking who had placed a pubic hair on a soda can.
Hill testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which at the time consisted entirely of men.
Thomas vehemently denied the allegations and alleged that he was the victim of a “high tech lynching.”
In the years since the hearing, the conduct of the senators has been subject to harsher scrutiny than it was at the time. Many of them were aggressive in their questioning of Hill and openly scornful of her credibility.
Joe Biden, then a Democratic senator from Delaware, was the chairman of the Judiciary Committee. He has been faulted for being insufficiently supportive of Hill and for allegedly not facilitating corroborating evidence for her claim.
This spring, as he prepared to enter the presidential race, Biden called Hill to express “regret” for how the hearings had gone. Hill later told The New York Times she was not “satisfied” by his sentiments.
Hill is a professor at Brandeis University. Thomas continues to serve on the Supreme Court.
Hillary Clinton on Benghazi, 2015
The stakes could hardly have been higher when Clinton came before the House Select Committee on Benghazi in October 2015.
Clinton had already been a presidential candidate for six months. The Iowa caucuses were less than four months away. And Republicans were seeking to place at least part of the blame on her for the 2012 attack at a U.S. diplomatic compound in Libya, in which four Americans died.
The good news for Clinton: The hearing turned out to be memorable only for the length of time it lasted.
Clinton testified for 11 hours. At the end, even the GOP committee chairman, Rep. Trey Gowdy (S.C.), admitted that little new information had emerged. A photo of Clinton looking skeptically toward the dais, her hand supporting her chin, became a popular internet meme.
The 2015 hearing was widely seen as a positive moment for Clinton — even if it did also showcase questions about her use of a private email server while secretary of State. Those questions would return, again and again, during her presidential bid.
Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh, 2018
The most emotionally charged congressional testimony of recent times came when Ford accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault, a charge that could have upended his nomination to the Supreme Court.
Ford told the Senate Judiciary Committee that she believed Kavanaugh “was going to rape” her at a house party she attended as a 15-year-old in 1982.
Kavanaugh testified on the same day, asserting that he had been involved in no such incident. He complained about “grotesque character assassination” and branded the whole episode “a national disgrace.”
Democrats asserted that Ford was credible and that this made it imperative that Kavanaugh be kept off the high court. Republicans suggested that Ford may have misremembered the incident or misidentified Kavanaugh.
Kavanaugh was ultimately confirmed by a 50-48 vote of the full Senate, the narrowest margin in modern history.
Ford was hailed as a hero by liberals and women’s groups, despite the outcome.