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Trump subpoena: History shows it’s not so unprecedented

FILE – A video of then-President Donald Trump speaking is displayed as the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol holds a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022. In an extraordinary step, the House Jan. 6 committee on Thursday voted to subpoena former President Donald Trump. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

The House Jan. 6 select committee forged new territory with its vote to issue a subpoena to former President Donald Trump for documents and testimony related to role in the Capitol insurrection.

This is the first time a congressional subpoena has been issued to a former president related to ongoing criminal investigations of that individual.

Prior to Trump, only three former presidents received congressional subpoenas: John Quincy Adams, John Tyler and Harry Truman. Only one testified.

In 1846, Adams and Tyler were subpoenaed to provide testimony related to payments made from a presidential contingency account, known as the “secret service fund.” Its purpose was for supporting highly sensitive foreign affairs action. Former Secretary of State Daniel Webster was accused of improperly using money from the fund for his own personal benefit.

The committees issued subpoenas to former presidents Adams and Tyler about their knowledge of how the money was used. Tyler testified to two House select committees established to investigate the charges. Adams provided a deposition only. The House concluded Webster was innocent of the charges.

In 1953, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) issued a subpoena for former President Truman in response to a charge that Truman knew an official he had appointed while president was a Russian spy. Truman denied the charge and refused to testify, arguing his testimony would violate the “universally recognized constitutional doctrine” of separation of powers between two co-equal branches of government. The HUAC didn’t take action to find Truman in contempt of Congress.

Five former presidents voluntarily testified before Congress a total of 47 times.

Theodore Roosevelt testified twice before congressional committees after his presidency. The first time was in 1911 regarding an acquisition by United States Steel that he permitted during his term of office. The former president said that “an ex-president is merely a citizen of the United States, like any other citizen, and it is his plain duty to try to help this committee or respond to its invitation.”

The following year he testified about corporate contributions to his 1904 presidential campaign.

Roosevelt’s successor in the White House, William Howard Taft, testified 17 times before various congressional committees. Most of the former president’s appearances related to his duties as chief justice of the Supreme Court.

Herbert Hoover testified 19 times before Senate and House committees between 1941 and 1956.

Truman, despite his 1953 refusal to testify in response to the HUAC subpoena, voluntarily testified in 1955 before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations about the United Nations Charter. He also testified another half-dozen times between 1957 and 1959 to congressional committees.

In 1978, the former President Gerald Ford testified before a House select committee investigating the assassination of President Kennedy. In 1983, he was back on Capitol Hill before a Senate subcommittee about the bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution.

Just as former presidents have voluntarily testified before congressional committees, three sitting presidents did the same.

President Abraham Lincoln appeared before the House Judiciary Committee in 1862. They were investigating who leaked a portion of the president’s message to Congress. There was speculation that Lincoln’s wife, Mary, may have been the leaker. The president assured the committee in a private session that no family members were involved in the leak.

President Woodrow Wilson met with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on August 19, 1919 at the White House to make his case for the League of Nations. He then embarked on a cross-country trip to sell the public on the idea. Less than two months after his testimony, he suffered a stroke on this trip that left him but a shadow of his former self for the remainder of his presidency. The Senate rejected the League of Nations.

In the aftermath of Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon, President Ford appeared before a House subcommittee on Oct. 17, 1974 to explain why he pardoned Nixon and assure them there was no quid pro quo.

Four sitting presidents have been issued subpoenas, one by Congress and three stemming from court cases or investigations.

In April 1974, the House Judiciary Committee issued a subpoena for tapes from President Nixon’s secret recording system. Nixon later released edited transcripts of the subpoenaed tapes but claimed executive privilege for not releasing the tapes.

The Supreme Court eventually ordered the president to turn over other documents in a case limiting presidential claims to executive privilege. The court wrote, “The president’s generalized assertion of privilege must yield to the demonstrated, specific need for evidence in a pending criminal trial and the fundamental demands of due process of law in the fair administration of criminal justice.”

President Bill Clinton was subpoenaed by special prosecutor Kenneth Starr in the Monica Lewinsky scandal. When Clinton agreed to testify, the subpoena was withdrawn.

President Thomas Jefferson was subpoenaed for documents in the treason trial of former Vice President Aaron Burr. Chief Justice John Marshall held the president was not exempt from the subpoena. The president released a few documents but claimed executive privilege.

President James Monroe was issued a subpoena to appear as a witness in a court martial case. Monroe declined to testify due to his official duties. He did answer questions in writing.

There are many examples of presidents and former presidents testifying before Congress either voluntarily or based on a subpoena. Courts have generally ruled that presidents and former presidents are not exempt from producing documents and testifying. The administration of justice is high value and must be considered when evaluating claims of executive privilege.

Mike Purdy is a presidential historian, the author of the “Presidential Friendships: How They Changed History,” and the founder of

Tags Daniel Webster Donald Trump Gerald Ford Harry Truman jan. 6 John Quincy Adams Richard Nixon Subpoena Theodore Roosevelt Trump Trump subpoena Woodrow Wilson
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