By Jonathan Turley
It is an honor to appear before you today to discuss one of the most solemn and important constitutional functions bestowed on this House by the Framers of our Constitution: the impeachment of the President of the United States.
Twenty-one years ago, I sat here before you, Chairman Nadler, and other members of the Judiciary Committee to testify on the history and meaning of the constitutional impeachment standard as part of the impeachment of President William Jefferson Clinton. I never thought that I would have to appear a second time to address the same question with regard to another sitting president. Yet, here we are. Some elements are strikingly similar.
The intense rancor and rage of the public debate is the same. It was an atmosphere that the Framers anticipated. Alexander Hamilton warned that charges of impeachable conduct “will seldom fail to agitate the passions of the whole community, and to divide it into parties more or less friendly or inimical to the accused.” As with the Clinton impeachment, the Trump impeachment has again proven Hamilton’s words to be prophetic.
The stifling intolerance for opposing views is the same. As was the case two decades ago, it is a perilous environment for a legal scholar who wants to explore the technical and arcane issues normally involved in an academic examination of a legal standard ratified 234 years ago. In truth, the Clinton impeachment hearing proved to be an exception to the tenor of the overall public debate. The testimony from witnesses, ranging from Arthur Schlesinger Jr. to Laurence Tribe to Cass Sunstein, contained divergent views and disciplines. Yet the hearing remained respectful and substantive as we all grappled with this difficult matter.
I appear today in the hope that we can achieve that same objective of civil and meaningful discourse despite our goodfaith differences on the impeachment standard and its application to the conduct of President Donald J. Trump. I have spent decades writing about impeachment and presidential powers as an academic and as a legal commentator. My academic work reflects the bias of a Madisonian scholar. I tend to favor Congress in disputes with the Executive Branch and I have been critical of the sweeping claims of presidential power and privileges made by modern Administrations. My prior testimony mirrors my criticism of the expansion of executive powers and privileges.
In truth, I have not held much fondness for any president in my lifetime. Indeed, the last president whose executive philosophy I consistently admired was James Madison. In addition to my academic work, I am a practicing criminal defense lawyer.
Among my past cases, I represented the United States House of Representatives as lead counsel challenging payments made under the Affordable Care Act without congressional authorization. I also served as the last lead defense counsel in an impeachment trial in the Senate. With my co-lead counsel Daniel Schwartz, I argued the case on behalf of federal judge Thomas Porteous. (My opposing lead counsel for the House managers was Adam Schiff).
I would like to start, perhaps incongruously, with a statement of three irrelevant facts. First, I am not a supporter of President Trump. I voted against him in 2016 and I have previously voted for Presidents Clinton and Obama.
Second, I have been highly critical of President Trump, his policies, and his rhetoric, in dozens of columns. Third, I have repeatedly criticized his raising of the investigation of the Hunter Biden matter with the Ukrainian president. These points are not meant to curry favor or approval. Rather they are meant to drive home a simple point: one can oppose President Trump’s policies or actions but still conclude that the current legal case for impeachment is not just woefully inadequate, but in some respects, dangerous, as the basis for the impeachment of an American president.
To put it simply, I hold no brief for President Trump. My personal and political views of President Trump, however, are irrelevant to my impeachment testimony, as they should be to your impeachment vote. Today, my only concern is the integrity and coherence of the constitutional standard and process of impeachment.
President Trump will not be our last president and what we leave in the wake of this scandal will shape our democracy for generations to come. I am concerned about lowering impeachment standards to fit a paucity of evidence and an abundance of anger.
If the House proceeds solely on the Ukrainian allegations, this impeachment would stand out among modern impeachments as the shortest proceeding, with the thinnest evidentiary record, and the narrowest grounds ever used to impeach a president. That does not bode well for future presidents who are working in a country often sharply and, at times, bitterly divided.
Although I am citing a wide body of my relevant academic work on these questions, I will not repeat that work in this testimony. Instead, I will focus on the history and cases that bear most directly on the questions facing this Committee. My testimony will first address relevant elements of the history and meaning of the impeachment standard. Second, I will discuss the past presidential impeachments and inquiries in the context of this controversy. Finally, I will address some of the specific alleged impeachable offenses raised in this process. In the end, I believe that this process has raised serious and legitimate issues for investigation.
Indeed, I have previously stated that a quid pro quo to force the investigation of a political rival in exchange for military aid can be impeachable, if proven. Yet moving forward primarily or exclusively with the Ukraine controversy on this record would be as precarious as it would premature. It comes down to a type of constitutional architecture. Such a slender foundation is a red flag for architects who operate on the accepted 1:10 ratio between the width and height of a structure.
The physics are simple. The higher the building, the wider the foundation. There is no higher constitutional structure than the impeachment of a sitting president and, for that reason, an impeachment must have a wide foundation in order to be successful. The Ukraine controversy has not offered such a foundation and would easily collapse in a Senate trial.
Before I address these questions, I would like to make one last cautionary observation regarding the current political atmosphere. In his poem “The Happy Warrior,” William Wordsworth paid homage to Lord Horatio Nelson, a famous admiral and hero of the Napoleonic Wars. Wordsworth began by asking “Who is the happy Warrior? Who is he what every man in arms should wish to be?” The poem captured the deep public sentiment felt by Nelson’s passing and one reader sent Wordsworth a gushing letter proclaiming his love for the poem. Surprisingly, Wordsworth sent back an admonishing response. He told the reader “you are mistaken; your judgment is affected by your moral approval of the lines.” Wordsworth’s point was that it was not his poem that the reader loved, but its subject.
My point is only this: it is easy to fall in love with lines that appeal to one’s moral approval. In impeachments, one’s feeling about the subject can distort one’s judgment on the true meaning or quality of an argument. We have too many happy warriors in this impeachment on both sides. What we need are more objective noncombatants, members willing to set aside political passion in favor of constitutional circumspection.
Despite our differences of opinion, I believe that this esteemed panel can offer a foundation for such reasoned and civil discourse. If we are to impeach a president for only the third time in our history, we will need to rise above this age of rage and genuinely engage in a civil and substantive discussion. It is to that end that my testimony is offered today.
Divining the intent of the Framers often borders on necromancy, with about the same level of reliability. Fortunately, there are some questions that were answered directly by the Framers during the Constitutional and Ratification Conventions. Any proper constitutional interpretation begins with the text of the Constitution. Indeed, such interpretations ideally end with the text when there is clarity as to a constitutional standard or procedure. Five provisions are material to impeachment cases, and therefore structure our analysis:
Article I, Section 2: The House of Representatives shall choose their Speaker and other Officers; and shall have the sole Power of Impeachment. U.S. Const. art. I, cl. 8.
Article I, Section 3: The Senate shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments. When sitting for that Purpose, they shall be on Oath or Affirmation. When the President of the United States is tried, the Chief Justice shall preside: And no Person shall be convicted without the Concurrence of two thirds of the Members present. U.S. Const. art. I, 3, cl. 6.
Article I, Section 3: Judgment in Cases of Impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust, or Profit under the United States: but the Party convicted shall nevertheless be liable and subject to Indictment, Trial, Judgment, and Punishment, according to the Law. U.S. Const. art. I, 3, cl. 7.
Article II, Section 2: [The President] shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment. U.S. Const., art. II, 2, cl. 1.
Article II, Section 4: The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors. U.S. Const. art. II, 4.
For the purposes of this hearing, it is Article II, Section 4 that is the focus of our attention and, specifically, the meaning of “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”
It is telling that the actual constitutional standard is contained in Article II (defining executive powers and obligations) rather than Article I (defining legislative powers and obligations). The location of that standard in Article II serves as a critical check on service as a president, qualifying the considerable powers bestowed upon the Chief Executive with the express limitations of that office.
It is in this sense an executive, not legislative, standard set by the Framers. For presidents, it is essential that this condition be clear and consistent so that they are not subject to the whim of shifting majorities in Congress. That was a stated concern of the Framers and led to the adoption of the current standard and, equally probative, the express rejection of other standards...
A comparison of the current impeachment inquiry with the three prior presidential inquiries puts a few facts into sharp relief. First, this is a case without a clear criminal act and would be the first such case in history if the House proceeds without further evidence. In all three impeachment inquiries, the commission of criminal acts by Johnson, Nixon, and Clinton were clear and established. With Johnson, the House effectively created a trapdoor crime and Johnson knowingly jumped through it. The problem was that the law—the Tenure in Office Act—was presumptively unconstitutional and the impeachment was narrowly built around that dubious criminal act.
With Nixon, there were a host of alleged criminal acts and dozens of officials who would be convicted of felonies. With Clinton, there was an act of perjury that even his supporters acknowledged was a felony, leaving them to argue that some felonies “do not rise to the level” of an impeachment. Despite clear and established allegations of criminal acts committed by the president, narrow impeachments like Johnson and Clinton have fared badly. As will be discussed further below, the recently suggested criminal acts related to the Ukrainian controversy are worse off, being highly questionable from a legal standpoint and far from established from an evidentiary standpoint.
Second, the abbreviated period of investigation into this controversy is both problematic and puzzling. Although the Johnson impeachment progressed quickly after the firing of the Secretary of War, that controversy had been building for over a year and was actually the fourth attempted impeachment. Moreover, Johnson fell into the trap laid a year before in the Tenure of Office Act. The formal termination was the event that triggered the statutory language of the act and thus there was no dispute as to the critical
We have never seen a controversy arise for the first time and move to an impeachment in such a short period.
Nixon and Clinton developed over many months of investigation and a wide array of witness testimony and grand jury proceedings. In the current matter, much remains unknown in terms of key witnesses and underlying documents. There is no explanation why the matter must be completed by December.
After two years of endless talk of impeachable and criminal acts, little movement occurred toward an impeachment. Suddenly the House appears adamant that this impeachment must be completed by the end of December. To be blunt, if the schedule is being accelerated by the approach of the Iowa caucuses, it would be both an artificial and inimical element to introduce into the process. This is not the first impeachment occurring during a political season.
In the Johnson impeachment, the vote on the articles was interrupted by the need for some Senators to go to the Republican National
Convention. The bifurcated vote occurred in May 1868 and the election was held just six months later.
Finally, the difference in the record is striking. Again, Johnson’s impeachment must be set aside as an outlier since it was based on a manufactured trap-door crime. Yet, even with Johnson, there was over a year of investigations and proceedings related to his alleged usurpation and defiance of the federal law. The Ukrainian matter is largely built around a handful of witnesses and a schedule that reportedly set the matter for a vote within weeks of the underlying presidential act. Such a wafer-thin record only magnifies the problems already present in a narrowly constructed impeachment.
The question for the House remains whether it is seeking simply to secure an impeachment or actually trying to build a case for removal. If it is the latter, this is not the schedule or the process needed to build a viable case. The House should not assume that the Republican control of the Senate makes any serious effort at impeachment impractical or naïve. All four
impeachment inquiries have occurred during rabid political periods. However, politicians can on occasion rise to the moment and chose principle over politics. Indeed, in the Johnson trial, senators knowingly sacrificed their careers to fulfill their constitutional
If the House wants to make a serious effort at impeachment, it should focus on building the record to raise these allegations to the level of impeachable offenses and leave to the Senate the question of whether members will themselves rise to the moment
For generations, the seven Republicans who defected to save President Johnson from removal have been heralded as profiles of courage. In recalling the moment he was called to vote, Senator Edmund Ross of Kansas said he “almost literally looked down into my open grave.” He jumped because the price was too great not to. Such moments are easy to celebrate from a distance of time and ircumstance.
However, that is precisely the moment in which you now find yourself.
“When the excitement of the hour [has] subsided” and “calmer times” prevail, I do not believe that this impeachment will be
viewed as bringing credit upon this body.
It is possible that a case for impeachment could be made, but it cannot be made on this record. To return to Wordsworth, the Constitution is not a call to arms for the “Happy Warriors.” The Constitution calls for circumspection, not celebration, at the prospect of the removal of an American president.
It is easy to allow one’s “judgment [to be] affected by your moral approval of the lines” in an impeachment narrative. But your oath demands more, even personal and political sacrifice, in deciding whether to impeach a president for only the third time in the history of this Republic.
In this age of rage, many are appealing for us to simply put the law aside and “just do it” like this is some impulse-buy Nike sneaker. You can certainly do that. You can declare the definitions of crimes alleged are immaterial and this is an exercise of politics, not law. However, the legal definitions and standards that I have addressed [here] are the very thing dividing rage from reason.
Listening to these calls to dispense with such legal niceties, brings to mind a famous scene with Sir Thomas More
in “A Man For All Seasons.” In a critical exchange, More is accused by his son-in-law William Roper of putting the law before morality and that More would “give the Devil the benefit of law!”
When More asks if Roper would instead “cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?,” Roper proudly declares “Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!”
More responds by saying “And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ‘round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you're just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!”
Both sides in this controversy have demonized the other to justify any measure in defense much like Roper. Perhaps that is the saddest part of all of this. We have forgotten the common article of faith that binds each of us to each other in our Constitution.
However, before we cut down the trees so carefully planted by the Framers, I hope you consider what you will do when the wind blows again... perhaps for a Democratic president. Where will you stand then “the laws all being flat?”
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