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GOP points to ‘unprecedented’ developments that've happened before

Former presidents have faced Justice Department investigations and vice presidents have given congressional testimony — despite recent GOP rhetoric.


In the wake of the FBI executing a search warrant at Mar-a-Lago last week, some of Donald Trump’s allies have argued that such a development was outrageous, not just because they assume that the former president is innocent, but also because no former president has ever had to face a criminal investigation after leaving office.

Except, that’s not quite true. A Washington Post analysis explained this week that after Bill Clinton left the White House, federal prosecutors investigated one of his final pardons for possible corruption — a probe that George W. Bush’s Republican attorney general personally approved.

Nothing came of the scrutiny, and Clinton wasn’t accused of any crimes, but the broader circumstances are familiar: A former president of one party left office, faced accusations of wrongdoing, and dealt with a rather thorough Justice Department investigation — which included two grand juries — led by the opposite party.

It’s also worth pausing to note that, while Clinton was investigated by federal law enforcement, Democratic activists did not threaten violence. There was no sudden burst in “civil war” talk. There were no elected officials from the Democratic Party who publicly talked up the idea of defunding the FBI. There was no organized effort to discredit the Justice Department or law enforcement.

Rather, Democrats expressed some discomfort with a controversial pardon, largely assumed the investigation would fade away, and focused their energies elsewhere.

The larger point, however, is that those suggesting Trump is facing unheard of scrutiny aren’t entirely right: The scope of the Republican’s alleged wrongdoing is far broader and more serious, but there is a precedent for investigations like these — and the nation survived just fine.

It was against this backdrop that former Vice President Mike Pence was asked an interesting question yesterday. NBC News reported:

Former Vice President Mike Pence said Wednesday that he would consider testifying before the House Jan. 6 committee if invited to appear, but he suggested he would need to sort out thorny constitutional questions before committing. “If ever any formal invitation were rendered to us, we’d give it due consideration,” he said, in reply to a question posed to him at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics’ “Politics & Eggs” series.

As part of the same response, the Hoosier added, “It would be unprecedented in history for a vice president to be summoned to testify on Capitol Hill. But I don’t want to prejudge.”

But just because Pence doesn’t remember historical events doesn’t mean they didn’t happen. In 1974, for example, Gerald Ford was the sitting American president, but that didn’t stop him from appearing on Capitol Hill and testifying publicly before a congressional committee.

During his first term as president, Abraham Lincoln also offered House committee testimony, as did several former presidents, including Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Harry Truman.

What about vice presidents? In 1873, Schuyler Colfax, the sitting VP at the time, also appeared before a congressional committee investigating a corruption scandal.

I can think of a variety of reasons why Pence wouldn’t want to answer questions about the Jan. 6 attack, but if he’s clinging to traditions and norms, and assuming his testimony would be “unprecedented,” that’s not quite right.