On Nov. 17, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said President Donald Trump has “every opportunity to present his case” before the House Intelligence Committee in its investigation into whether he used his executive powers as leverage to gain foreign help against a political rival.
“The President could come right before the committee and talk, speak all the truth that he wants if he wants,” Pelosi said during an appearance on CBS’ Face The Nation.
Unsurprisingly, Trump didn’t jump at the chance to appear before the committee in person, but he did say he might be willing to take Pelosi up on her suggestion to provide his written version of events. “Even though I did nothing wrong, and don’t like giving credibility to this No Due Process Hoax, I like the idea & will, in order to get Congress focused again, strongly consider it!” Trump tweeted on Monday.
It’s not the first time that Trump has found himself at the negotiating table with investigators. In November 2018, Trump cut a deal to provide written testimony to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, after Mueller repeatedly attempted to get Trump to participate in a sit-down interview. Talks over a face-to-face conversation dragged on for over a year, according to Mueller’s office. The team decided it “did not want to exercise the subpoena powers because of the necessity of expediting the end of the investigation,” Mueller told the House Intelligence Committee in July.
Ultimately, Mueller’s report contained 23 pages of un-redacted questions and Trump’s answers, including some about Democrats’ hacked emails. On Monday, a lawyer for the House said Congressional Democrats are now investigating whether Trump lied in those responses.
Trump, a self-described master negotiator, is not the first embattled Commander-in-Chief who has struggled to navigate how to participate in their own impeachment-related inquiries. But in the run-up to elections, Trump’s team has pushed back harder than previous administrations by restricting investigators’ access to other officials, observers who were involved in previous presidential probes say.
When President Richard Nixon was facing allegations that he attempted to cover up the Watergate break-in, he initially declined to adhere with Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox’s subpoenas requiring that he share tape recordings of White House conversations he had kept, arguing the principle of executive privilege protected them. After Nixon’s subpoena appeals were denied, the former President offered to allow a Democratic Senator to review the tapes and provide Cox with verification that the summaries Nixon provided were accurate. Cox declined to accept Nixon’s proposed compromise, and was subsequently fired for this refusal, setting in motion the infamous Saturday Night Massacre that underpinned Nixon’s eventual resignation.
Michael Conway, an attorney who served as counsel for the House Judiciary Committee during its impeachment inquiry into Nixon, says Trump has gone further than Nixon in his attempt to control what information investigators have access to during their inquiry.
“Nixon was equally resistant to turning materials over and documents, but he did allow people to testify,” Conway says, referencing the White House’s urging that aides not comply with the Democrat-led investigation. “He was not as brazen about claiming some umbrella privilege for everything that is said by any of his aides.”
President Bill Clinton also tried to barter with investigators amid mounting concerns that he had engaged in inappropriate sexual relations with 22-year-old White House intern Monica Lewinsky and lied about their relationship under oath. Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr initially subpoenaed Clinton, but later withdrew the order after Clinton agreed to provide voluntary testimony under predetermined conditions. Prosecutors only had four hours to question the President at the White House, and Clinton’s White House and personal lawyers were permitted to be in the room with him.
Trump and Clinton employed similar strategies to combat the allegations against their administrations, with both leaders referring to the respective investigations as “witch hunts,” says Paul Rosenzweig, who served as a senior counsel under Starr.
And while Clinton pushed back against full cooperation with their probes, Trump’s team took it further, Rosenzweig says, when White House Counsel Pat Cipollone asserted the Administration would not comply with the inquiry he called “illegitimate” and “constitutionally invalid” in an Oct. 8 letter addressed to Pelosi and other members of Democratic leadership. “A blanket statement of non-cooperation is more extreme than the non-cooperation that was almost blanket from Clinton, but never expressed that way. As with so many things, Trump’s lawyers are saying the silent part out loud,” Rosenzweig says.
Of course, Clinton didn’t have his re-election to worry about, and neither did Nixon. As the inquiry centering on Trump’s conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky continues to unfold, Trump’s legal team has to ensure whatever action he takes — and whatever testimony he does or doesn’t provide — ultimately galvanizes his support base come 2020.
Given those stakes, Trump’s team of lawyers will do everything they can to keep the President from testifying at all, Rosenzweig says. “There’s no way that his attorneys are going to let him testify. They’ll throw themselves in front of him physically if they have to.”