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Commentary: We need our presidents to answer for their actions – but how?

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“I ask how and why this decision was reached,” Utah Sen. Mitt Romney said in the Senate recently. He was calling for an investigation into President Trump’s decision to pull U.S. forces out of Syria. “Are we so weak and so inept diplomatically that Turkey forced the hand of the United States of America?”

A good question. But if the Senate does launch an investigation, do you imagine Romney will get to pose it directly to the president?

We have a presidential accountability problem that has significantly worsened over the years. We’re losing the ability to call presidents to account on a regular basis for the way they fulfill their responsibilities. Sure, we have the big guns: elections and impeachment. But these are drastic steps, hard to employ and infrequently available.

What I’m talking about is a way for knowledgeable people to step beyond the White House’s control of presidential appearances, ask tough questions and get real answers so that the American people can judge the president’s actions and reasoning.

It wasn’t so long ago that presidents held frequent and often free-wheeling formal press conferences. But nowadays presidential press conferences tend to be rare and studiously stage-managed. President Trump likes to joust with the press on the White House driveway but those encounters produce little more than self-serving sound bites.

I’d love to see the president stand in front of Congress and let members grill him, the way British prime ministers face Parliament during “question time.” But I suggested that once when I was a congressman and nearly got laughed out of the room.

So how do we get the president to outline the thinking behind a policy? Or go into details on what led to a given decision? I don’t know the answer, but it’s something we should think about the next time we’re choosing a president.

Lee Hamilton is a senior adviser for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government and a former Democratic congressman.

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