Congress Should Summon Trump to Testify

by John Lawrence

President Trump’s decision to fire FBI director Richard Comey is fueling comparisons to Richard Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre” in October 1973. In an act of executive arrogance, Nixon discharged the man heading the investigation into the White House’s involvement in the Watergate scandal. Both Attorney General Elliott Richardson and his deputy, William Ruckelshaus, resigned their positions rather than comply with the order to fire Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox.

Ten months after ordering Cox’ dismissal, Nixon himself resigned and was succeeded by the recently appointed Vice President Gerald Ford, the longtime, popular Republican Leader of the House of Representatives. But relief over the ending of the “long national nightmare,” as Ford had characterized the Watergate saga, quickly evaporated when the new President issued a pardon to his disgraced predecessor in September, 1974. “That son of a bitch pardoned the son of a bitch!” Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post exclaimed to his Watergate collaborator, Bob Woodward. As Ford’s popularity plummeted, Democratic candidates exulted that Ford had clumsily re-injected controversy into the political atmosphere just two months before the election (which yielded a 49-seat gain for House Democrats).

Many in Congress questioned whether Ford had promised Nixon a pardon in return for his resignation, a charge Ford angrily denied. Ford returned to Capitol Hill to give his account of the pardon decision to the same Judiciary Committee members who had voted to impeach his predecessor. Under intense but respectful questioning, Ford steadfastly denied having cut a deal to ease Nixon out so that he might assume the presidency. Subsequent revelations, however, suggest that Ford had considered an offer from White House chief of staff Alexander Haig to issue a pardon in return for Nixon quitting. Ford told Haig he “needed time to think about it,” a statement that left several aides apoplectic. “You can’t do that,” Ford aide John Marsh exclaimed, according to an account by Woodward. “It would look like a quid pro quo for Nixon’s resignation!” Indeed, the following year, Judiciary Committee members narrowly defeated an effort to open an inquiry into Ford’s alleged deal with Haig.

The aftermath of the Ford pardon mirrors the inter-branch conflict that now afflicts the Trump Administration, and one way to resolve the suspicion surrounding the motives for firing Comey would be for Trump, like Ford, to answer the charges publicly before the Congress. Indeed, since the decision to oust Comey was unquestionably made by the President alone, the only way Congress or the public will ever know the basis for the controversial removal is to hear from the President in open testimony.

Comey’s firing is not the only issue on which Congress has an obligation to interrogate President Trump. He also fired acting Attorney General Sally Yates in January after she warned the brand new President that his National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, was “compromised with the Russians.” Five weeks later, Trump also fired the U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, whose office would likely have prosecuted campaign violations that occurred in New York. The systematic removal of three law enforcement officials looking into the Trump-Russia connection presents a “deeply troubling pattern,” in the words of Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer. Congress has an obligation to question the President about these dubious decisions.

Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s response to the Comey ouster is to, once again, shrug off calls for a special prosecutor, preferring to leave the inquiry with congressional committees. But if McConnell is serious about a Senate investigation, he should join with Democratic leaders and invite the President to come to Capitol Hill, as did President Ford, to clear the air.

Of course, Trump is unlikely to voluntarily subject himself to questions from Congress. It is not as easy to walk away from a congressional committee as it is to abruptly terminate an uncomfortable interview, as Trump recently did with John Dickerson of CBS News. But Trump’s understandable reticence should not influence Congress’ responsibility to conduct reasonable oversight into the Comey firing. No sound inquiry can occur without the person at the center of the storm – Donald Trump – being sworn in and testifying.