9 U.S. Presidents Who Testified Before Congress
It’s relatively common for a U.S. president to get involved in some sort of investigation during or after their stint in the Oval Office. The nature of that involvement and the type of investigation have varied widely over the years.
In 1807, for example, Thomas Jefferson turned over documents after declining a subpoena soliciting his testimony at Aaron Burr’s treason trial; Ulysses S. Grant, on the other hand, once voluntarily testified as a defense witness during a criminal trial against his personal secretary.
In other cases—like Bill Clinton’s—the sitting president hasn’t just been on the periphery of an investigation. Jimmy Carter is another example: He testified during a 1979 special counsel probe into the financial dealings of his family peanut business (nothing incriminating was unearthed). There are also a number of times where presidents have complied with or denied calls for evidence [PDF]. During the Watergate fiasco, Richard Nixon did both.
Many congressional inquiries have featured presidential testimony, too—often, but not always, after a president has left the White House. They haven’t all been examining a past president’s (or anyone’s) actions for potential criminality; pretty frequently, a president would show up to defend or oppose a piece of legislation or offer advice on a congressional course of action. Below are nine U.S. presidents who have—subpoenaed or not—appeared before a congressional committee in person for one reason or another (and one who refused a summons).
1. and 2. John Quincy Adams and John Tyler
In 1846, Pennsylvania congressman C.J. Ingersoll accused Massachusetts senator Daniel Webster of misappropriating money from the Presidential Secret Service Fund when Webster was secretary of state from 1841 to 1843. Then-President James Polk agreed to reveal the amounts spent during that period, but he wouldn’t disclose how the money was actually used. The fund was meant for espionage and other secret operations involving international affairs, and Polk felt it wasn’t his place to publicize information that the previous president had kept classified. So the House set up two investigative committees that then subpoenaed the previous president, John Tyler, who testified that all of Webster’s expenditures had been above board.
It’s been reported that John Quincy Adams was also subpoenaed, prompting him to submit a written deposition with details on how the fund had been used during his own presidency in the 1820s [PDF]. But even if neither committee delivered Adams an official summons—or solicited intel specifically from his presidential tenure—he definitely was involved in the investigation. At the time, Adams himself was a member of the House of Representatives (serving Massachusetts), and his stint as chair of the House’s foreign affairs committee had overlapped with Webster’s secretaryship. Adams didn’t shy away from speaking up during House meetings on Ingersoll’s allegations.
3. Abraham Lincoln
In December 1861, The New York Herald published parts of a speech that then-President Abraham Lincoln was slated to deliver to Congress. The House Judiciary Committee identified man-about-town Henry Wikoff as the leaker, but how he’d come by the speech was a slightly dicier matter. Generally viewed as an unscrupulous rogue, Wikoff boasted a close friendship with Mary Todd Lincoln, who’d taken him on as a social advisor of sorts. It seemed most likely that she’d given him the document—an idea reinforced by the unsubstantiated but not uncommon opinion that she harbored Confederate sympathies.
In the end, White House gardener John Watt (another friend of Mary’s with a bad reputation) copped to finding the speech in the library and repeating what he remembered from it to Wikoff. The committee reportedly accepted this story in part because the president himself showed up to testify on his wife’s behalf, though details of his appearance remain unclear. According to legal scholar Ronald Rotunda, the hearing manuscripts “are ambiguous on the question of Lincoln’s presence” at all [PDF], but it was reported in a number of newspapers at the time.
4. Theodore Roosevelt
In 1911, the House established a committee to investigate U.S. Steel’s 1907 purchase of the Tennessee Coal and Iron Company as a possible breach of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890. Not only had Theodore Roosevelt been president then, but he’d approved the sale—and he gamely testified at a committee hearing to justify why.
When the committee chairman thanked Roosevelt for his “kindness in appearing … and answering so fully and completely every question,” Roosevelt replied that “an ex-President is merely a citizen of the United States, like any other citizen, and it is his plain duty to try and help this committee or respond to its invitation, just as anyone else would respond.”
With that attitude, it’s no surprise that Roosevelt again volunteered to testify the very next year, this time before a Senate subcommittee regarding fundraising ventures during his own 1904 reelection campaign. Roosevelt denied personally soliciting money from corporations and stressed that any such donations came with no strings attached and held no sway over his actions as president.
5. William Howard Taft
Roosevelt’s successor testified in front of various congressional committees more than a dozen times after leaving office in 1913. The first was in January 1915, when he appeared before the Senate Committee on the Philippines to argue against U.S. recognition of Philippine independence. (His plea failed to prevent the passage of the 1916 Jones Act, which stated the U.S. would relinquish sovereignty “as soon as a stable government can be established therein.” It didn’t really relinquish sovereignty until after World War II.)
A couple other congressional affairs that Taft showed up to weigh in on post-presidency included the need to establish a national budget system and the need to relocate the Supreme Court from Capitol Hill to its own premises (both eventually successful endeavors). Many of Taft’s congressional testimonies were given in his capacity as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, a position he held from 1921 to 1930.
6. Woodrow Wilson
Woodrow Wilson was still in office in August 1919 when he tried to convince the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the Senate should ratify the Treaty of Versailles. “Every element of normal life amongst us depends upon and awaits the ratification of the treaty of peace,” he said in his opening remarks, followed by a 3.5-hour question-and-answer session. Wilson did at least succeed in getting the Senate to vote on the treaty—which they did twice, in November 1919 and March 1920—but it was rejected both times, in part because Wilson was so resistant to amending it.
7. Herbert Hoover
Herbert Hoover’s list of congressional committee appearances is even longer than Taft’s. It starts in December 1941, when he was invited to advise the Senate Committee on Banking and Currency on the Emergency Price Control Act. Hoover had headed up the U.S. Food Administration during World War I, so he had first-hand experience in conserving resources throughout a global crisis. At the committee hearing, the former president not only argued that “price controls are absolutely imperative to win the war,” but he also enumerated 14 ways in which lawmakers should shift their focus from price control to “commodity control” in order to protect the national economy. In late January 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the act into law.
After Harry Truman succeeded Roosevelt in 1945, he asked Hoover to visit the White House “to talk over the European food situation” and eventually ended up sending him to more than three dozen nations to assess how the U.S. could help them avoid famine in the aftermath of World War II. Hoover then chaired two separate so-called “Hoover Commissions” that overhauled the executive branch to “promote economy, efficiency, and improved service.” Throughout (and beyond) the Truman administration, it wasn’t that uncommon for Hoover to show up at a congressional hearing to discuss his opinions on those and other matters.
8. Harry S. Truman
Truman testified before congressional committees several times after leaving the Oval Office as well. During a review of the U.S.’s United Nations charter in April 1955, he advised the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to “be everlastingly careful not to throw away the good and great instrument we already have in a search for something better,” though he did admit that the U.N. had room for improvement. In subsequent appearances between 1957 and 1959, Truman counseled generosity in apportioning foreign aid, backed a $5 billion tax cut for low- and middle-income demographics, and recommended the repeal of the 22nd Amendment (which prohibited presidents from serving more than two four-year terms).
But Truman is better remembered for his one refusal to testify. In November 1953, the House Un-American Activities Committee subpoenaed the former president over the U.S. attorney general’s accusation that Truman knew Harry Dexter White was a spy for the Soviet Union (still a divisive claim) when White was appointed as the International Monetary Fund’s U.S. executive director in 1946. Truman declined to comply with the subpoena on the grounds that compliance would violate the doctrine of the separation of powers.
“The President … would become a mere arm of the Legislative Branch … if he would feel during his term of office that his every act might be subject to official inquiry and possible distortion for political purposes” even after he left office, Truman wrote, and the House never held him in contempt of Congress for his failure to appear. In lieu of a congressional hearing, Truman denied the accusation during a national broadcast in which he detailed what he knew about the allegations against White, when he knew it, and why he believed the attorney general’s claim was McCarthyist “political skulduggery.”
9. Gerald Ford
Gerald Ford’s most notable congressional testimony was on October 17, 1974, when he voluntarily explained to the House Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on criminal justice why he’d pardoned Richard Nixon. In Ford’s opening statement, he said he’d wanted “to shift our attentions from the pursuit of a fallen president to the pursuit of the urgent needs of a rising nation”—needs that would be neglected if the country “were to remain sharply divided over whether to indict, bring to trial, and punish a former President.” But Ford was confident that the pardon “will not cause us to forget the evils of Watergate-type offenses or to forget the lessons we have learned that a government which deceives its supporters and treats its opponents as enemies must never, never be tolerated.”
Ford appeared before congressional committees twice after he left office in 1977: once in 1978 to defend the 1963–1964 Warren Commission’s conclusions on the JFK assassination (Ford had served on the commission), and again in 1983 to offer advice on how to celebrate the 1987 bicentennial anniversary of the Constitution.