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Presidential cooperation: History’s perspective on scandal and controversy

Greg Nash

Etched in history is President Gerald Ford’s unprecedented October 1974 appearance on Capitol Hill to explain why he pardoned Richard Nixon, his disgraced predecessor. Ford believed Congress and the American people had a right to know why he decided to absolve Nixon of any criminal charges related to the Watergate break-in and its cover-up.

His purpose in issuing the pardon, he said, was to “change our national focus” and shift attention “to the pursuit of the urgent needs of a rising nation.” Instead, he was severely criticized and lost his reelection bid two years later, in the closest electoral vote since 1916.

“Time has a way of clarifying past events,” Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), an early critic of the pardon, later said, adding that he belatedly saw “that President Ford was right. His courage and dedication to our country made it possible for us to begin the process of healing and put the tragedy of Watergate behind us.”

We certainly do not need another “long national nightmare” like Watergate, as Ford characterized it. Yet that may well be exactly where we are headed unless President Donald Trump considers truthful cooperation to be an imperative. We certainly do not need more free-wheeling offensive comments or late-night invective tweets that are misleading and divisive.

The American experience is littered with scandals, questionable activities and misunderstood decisions by the executive branch that have thrust congressional and judicial inquiries to the forefront of American consciousness. When presidents have been unwilling to cooperate with an investigation, the resulting confrontation is often ugly and long-remembered, as the escalating Ukraine scandal undoubtedly will be.

Largely ignored, however, are the thousands of instances when a chief executive has willingly responded to requests for information or eventually been pressured into backing down. Revisiting at least a few of these occasions offers a window into historical precedents for cooperating with a constitutional process drafted by the Framers.

When George Washington faced the first formal congressional inquiry in 1792 — over the propriety of a military action — he met with his cabinet, determined Congress had the right of inquiry, and released the desired documents. Five years later, Congress demanded and received papers from John Adams detailing one of our nation’s most infamous diplomatic incidents, the “XYZ Affair.”

Thomas Jefferson felt that if he kept all the facts to himself, that left Congress to “plunge on in the dark” and our government would become one “of chance not design.” James Monroe told the House that “all in the possession of the Executive respecting any important interest of our Union which may be communicated without real injury to our constituents,” should be communicated. Both Jefferson and Monroe responded to judicial subpoenas.

Former President John Tyler honored a similar motion by a House committee investigating misconduct by a member of his cabinet, and ex-President John Quincy Adams filed a sworn deposition during the same proceeding.

Although Andrew Jackson boldly refused several document requests, he did acquiesce more than 100 times. Admittedly, his positive responses were frequently tempered by a repressed reluctance, but he still recognized the need to “avoid misrepresentation.”

Abraham Lincoln, on at least eight occasions, discussed military matters at the White House with the members of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. Contrary to legend, no evidence has been uncovered that would even remotely suggest that either the Joint Committee or Lincoln ever deemed it necessary for the president to testify formally on Capitol Hill.

Andrew Johnson furnished documents and materials to those who sought his removal. Ulysses Grant filed a deposition in a court case involving criminal action by his confidential secretary.

At the height of the debate over the League of Nations, Woodrow Wilson held a special White House meeting with House and Senate Foreign Relations committees to promote the League and Treaty of Versailles. In what was tantamount to a field hearing, Wilson read a prepared statement and then submitted to more than three hours of questioning. (Despite his efforts, the Senate rejected the treaty, and the U.S. never joined the league.)

Warren Harding transmitted documents to the Senate that led to the disclosure of the Teapot Dome scandal. Franklin Roosevelt initialed special meetings where House and Senate leaders were briefed on the “Manhattan Project,” the code name for the research and development effort that produced the first atomic bombs.

Following Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s (R-Wis.) sweeping accusations that communists were employed by the State Department and shaping policy, Harry Truman agreed to show Congress the loyalty files of the 81 people McCarthy had accused. 

A Senate committee investigation of abuses by the CIA, FBI and NSA obtained approximately 110,000 document pages from the Ford White House, various intelligence agencies and others. Jimmy Carter shared executive branch records with Congress following the Justice Department’s disclosure that his brother, Billy, had registered as a foreign agent representing Libya.

When Ronald Reagan was confronted with demands for information, he often initially resisted before finally agreeing. Two of the more protracted of those instances ended with the release of documents related to Canadian discriminatory practices against U.S. interests, and subpoenaed EPA documents on the agency’s enforcement of the 1980 “Superfund” law.

After initially invoking executive privilege, George H.W. Bush substantially responded to a House request for information on Operation Desert Shield. Bill Clinton caved on demands to review documents relating to “Travelgate” after Congress issued subpoenas, held White House officials in contempt and threatened a full House vote on a contempt resolution.

The George W. Bush administration — Fred Fielding and Heath Tarbert, Bush’s White House counsel and associate counsel, recently wrote — “satisfied Congress’s oversight interests by successfully responding to hundreds of congressional investigations and inquiries.” During the last two years of the Bush presidency alone, the “executive branch produced or made available nearly two million pages of documents.”

Despite promising to be more open and transparent, Barack Obama was often subject to criticism in this regard. During his eight years, however, the Obama administration produced tens of thousands of documents to Congress. Reportedly, included among these was extensive information regarding the solar energy company Solyndra, which filed for bankruptcy after receiving a $535 million Department of Energy loan guarantee, and more than 100,000 pages of records relating to the 2012 attack on a U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya, including more than 900 pages of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s private emails.

Late in January 2018, attorneys for President Trump said the White House had provided more than 20,000 pages of materials and the Trump campaign had provided more than 1.4 million pages to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe and Congressional inquiries. They went on to say that the “cooperation and transparency was unprecedented.”

Is it now time for Donald Trump to cooperate with the impeachment inquiry? Historical precedent argues “yes.” A majority of Americans agree, according to a recent CBS poll.

Especially instructional right now is Richard Nixon’s rumination upon being pardoned: “I can see clearly now that I was wrong in not acting more decisively and more forthrightly in dealing with Watergate, particularly when it reached the stage of judicial proceedings and grew from a political scandal into a national tragedy.”

Stephen W. Stathis was a specialist in American history for the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress for nearly four decades. He is the author of Landmark Debates in Congress: From the Declaration of Independence to the War in Iraq, and Landmark Legislation: Major U.S. Acts and Treaties 1774-2012.

Tags Barack Obama Bill Clinton Donald Trump Donald Trump Impeachment executive branch Executive privilege Gerald Ford Hillary Clinton Jimmy Carter Political scandals in the United States Richard Nixon Robert Mueller United States Congress Watergate scandal

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