• Politics
  • Joe Biden

House Republicans Want Joe Biden to Testify Before Congress. Do Presidents Do That?

6 minute read

The top Republican on the House Oversight Committee intends to call President Joe Biden to testify in an ongoing investigation into the overseas business dealings of his son, Hunter Biden. Such a move would set off a tug of war between Congress and the White House, but it’s unlikely Biden would ultimately be forced to appear. It’s very rare for a sitting President to testify before Congressional committees, and no sitting president has ever been forced to answer questions in front of Congress. 

Only three sitting Presidents have ever testified before Congressional committees—Abraham Lincoln in 1862, Woodrow Wilson in 1919, and Gerald Ford in 1974—and they all appeared voluntarily. After he left office, the House Jan. 6 Committee subpoenaed former President Donald Trump to describe his role in efforts to overturn his 2020 election loss. Trump refused and the committee never secured his testimony.

Rep. James Comer, a Kentucky Republican who chairs the House Oversight Committee, said in an interview with Fox Business’s Maria Bartiromo on Thursday that he intends to call both Hunter Biden and Joe Biden to testify before his committee, after completing more transcribed interviews with other witnesses. 

Comer’s investigation has focused on money Hunter Biden made from Ukrainian and Chinese businesses while Joe Biden was Vice President. Comer’s investigation hasn’t shown any instance in which Joe Biden received money from Hunter Biden’s business or made policy decisions because of his son’s influence.

The committee recently heard from Devon Archer, Hunter Biden’s longtime business partner, who testified that Hunter Biden repeatedly gave the impression to business associates that he had access to his father while he was Vice President. Joe Biden would often call Hunter back while his son was in business meetings and Hunter would put the Vice President on speaker phone. During those calls, Joe Biden spoke in generalities and didn't talk business, Archer testified. While those exchanges allowed Hunter Biden to show that he was close to his father and gave the impression he could influence him, Archer said he never heard Joe Biden discuss any business dealings on those calls.

There are lingering questions about how much Biden knew about his son’s business dealings while serving as Vice President.  During a 2020 presidential debate, Biden was asked if the work his son had done in China or for a Ukrainian energy company was inappropriate or unethical. "Nothing was unethical," Biden said in response. "My son has not made money in terms of this thing about, what you are talking about, China." That wasn’t true. Hunter Biden had been paid by Chinese businesses, according to a September 2020 report written by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, which was led by Republicans at the time.

The spotlight on Hunter Biden isn’t just coming from the Republican-controlled House. Hunter Biden also remains a target of investigations by the Justice Department. In July, Hunter Biden’s plea deal fell apart after the US Attorney in Delaware, David Weiss, hit an impasse with Hunter Biden’s attorneys over tax evasion and a gun charge. On Friday, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced he had appointed Weiss as special counsel in the Hunter Biden probe, signaling that Weiss plans to continue investigating the President’s son.

All of that means that Hunter Biden will remain in the headlines, and an ongoing political headache for Biden’s White House and reelection campaign. 

Nonetheless, a subpoena of President Biden by Congress is not imminent. “We want to talk to about three or four more associates first,” Comer said on Fox Business. "It's very difficult,” he added. “You know how hard the Democrats tried to get Donald Trump" to testify.

The White House press office would not say if Biden would agree to testify if subpoenaed by Comer’s committee. In a statement, White House spokesman Ian Sams called Comer’s investigation a “wild goose chase,” and said, “They simply will continue to spread innuendo and lies as they pursue a baseless impeachment stunt to attack the President.”

The last sitting president to testify before Congress was Ford, who wanted to appear before the House Judiciary Committee in October 1974 to explain his decision a month earlier to pardon his predecessor, Richard Nixon. Before he was pardoned, Nixon had been expected to face criminal charges for obstruction of justice or bribery in covering up his reelection campaign’s breaking into the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate office complex. Ford later said that when Nixon accepted the pardon, Ford believed Nixon was publicly acknowledging his guilt in the Watergate coverup. 

How far congressional investigations into a President can go has been an issue of debate for decades. More recently, while Trump was president, House Democrats sought Trump’s tax records from an accounting firm called Mazars USA as part of their investigation into Trump’s business and real estate transactions with foreign governments and potential conflicts of interest. Trump sued to block the firm from complying. Ultimately the Supreme Court ruled that Mazars USA had to provide Congress with records it requested, as long as Congress could show those records related to efforts to draft legislation. House Democrats finally received some of those records from Mazars in 2022, years after first seeking them.

If Comer moves forward with a subpoena to demand Biden testify, his committee may have to show in court that his investigation is related to an effort to draft laws, and not just to score political points.

Biden will also have to contend with the possibility that House Republicans, if they issue a subpoena, may be wanting him to refuse to appear, allowing them to use that as a basis for an article of impeachment, says Timothy Naftali, an expert on the power of the presidency and a senior research scholar at Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs. “The other issue that President Biden has to consider is the fact that the House may also be engaging in an impeachment trap, in other words, giving itself a reason for one article of impeachment for contempt of Congress,” Naftali says.

While some House Republicans have been pushing to impeach Biden over unproven claims of financial misconduct, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has so far held off on such efforts. But in July, McCarthy hinted that he’s open to the possibility, saying an impeachment inquiry is the “the apex of power of Congress.”

One challenge facing House Republicans in pursuing Biden’s testimony may be the precedent that Trump set in repeatedly rebuffing the Jan. 6th Committee, says Lauren Wright, a political scientist at Princeton University. “There’s a really strong precedent that’s recent where the other party tried something similar and failed,” Wright says.

Ultimately, Republicans may not even gain much politically from these investigations of Biden anyway, Wright says. Public opinion polling shows that “people fail to see these investigations as something that affects their daily life and so it’s unlikely to affect the way they vote,” says Wright. 

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com