President Donald Trump has gone back and forth about the value and appropriateness of answering investigators’ questions.
When special counsel Robert Mueller sought to question Trump in 2018 during the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, Trump’s lawyers not only denied a request for a face-to-face interrogation, but also limited the scope of the questions they would allow the president to address. The White House then preened about Trump’s “unprecedented cooperation,” though his answers were peppered with such lawyerly evasions as “I do not recall,” “I have no independent recollection” and “I do not remember.”
Then earlier this month, when the anonymous whistleblower volunteered to answer questions in writing from Republican congressmen who remain obsessed with the completely irrelevant matter of the whistleblower’s identity, Trump raged on Twitter, “He must be brought forward to testify. Written answers not acceptable!”
Trump seemed to reverse himself again Monday when he tweeted, “I like the idea,” to Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s suggestion that he testify in writing to the House Intelligence Committee now hearing the inquiry into his impeachment. Trump wrote that he would “strongly consider it!”
You may wonder why it’s up to him.
You may recall, as I do, that President Bill Clinton testified in person, under oath, twice back in 1998 in proceedings related to the inquiry into his extramarital sexual behavior.
Clinton fought the first subpoena in court, arguing that the responsibilities of a sitting president are too important and the principle of separation of powers too vital to allow the courts to compel him to testify in the lawsuit brought by Paula Jones, who alleged he had sexually harassed her when he was governor of Arkansas. But in Jones v. Clinton, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously against Clinton, finding that a president “is subject to the same laws that apply to all citizens.”
He then sat for a deposition in January 1998.
Six months later, special prosecutor Kenneth Starr subpoenaed Clinton to appear before the grand jury investigating whether Clinton had had a sexual relationship with a former White House intern and then lied about that fact during his deposition in the Jones case.
At first, Clinton indicated he would fight the subpoena. Starr’s entire inquiry was an absurd and transparent effort to remove a president from office simply because he was a horn dog who lied to conceal his infidelities and allegedly grotesque seduction techniques. Clinton could and arguably should have declared the whole exercise a ridiculous sham and told Starr to go take a flying leap at a rolling doughnut.
But those were different times.
These days, Republicans are standing shoulder to shoulder with the defiant Trump, cheering him on as he derides the investigation into his alleged efforts to squeeze Ukraine into trying to dig up dirt on his Democratic political rival Joe Biden and attempts to block those with firsthand knowledge of that effort from testifying.
But in the summer of 1998, elected Democrats all across the country pressured Clinton to cooperate with Starr, lest the tawdry scandal hurt the party at the polls that November. So rather than engage in another prolonged legal fight that might have led to a constitutional crisis, Clinton agreed to testify under oath again that August. The line everyone remembers from that event: “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”
And of course the justification for Clinton’s subsequent impeachment offered by indignant Republicans and conservative commentators ended up being not that Clinton had sex with an intern. Oh, no. It was that he’d lied under oath. Never mind the circumstances, motivation or materiality of his falsehoods. He had sworn to tell the truth! The rule of law was in shambles!
Why is it today up to Trump whether or not he testifies before the committee?
Because the once-indignant Republicans and conservative guardians of law aren’t demanding he do so, despite the comparative gravity of the charges against him.
And because Democrats in Congress have shown no stomach or patience for the court fight necessary to try to force him to.
You may conclude, as I have, that Trump himself has already said it best: “He must be brought forward to testify. Written answers not acceptable!”
Eric Zorn is an OpEd columnist for the Chicago Tribune.