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The Legal Case For Impeachment


The public phase of the impeachment inquiry started yesterday. Two career diplomats testified for about five hours. William Taylor, the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, said in his opening statement that he has no political bias.


WILLIAM TAYLOR: I am not here to take one side or the other or to advocate for any particular outcome of these proceedings. My sole purpose is to provide facts as I know them about the incidents in question, as well as my views about the strategic importance of Ukraine to the United States.

KING: William Taylor and George Kent, another State Department official, described the pressure that President Trump and his allies put on Ukraine to investigate his political rival Joe Biden.

So how might the testimony here inform the legal case in the impeachment inquiry? Jonathan Turley is a law professor at George Washington University. He testified as a constitutional expert in the Clinton impeachment hearings.

Good morning, Professor Turley.

JONATHAN TURLEY: Good morning.

KING: So how did each side, Democrats and Republicans, lay out their case yesterday?

TURLEY: Well, I think the Democrats had a particularly good day. Ambassador Taylor proved to be the witness that they hoped they had in Mueller. He proved to be lucid and quite compelling on television. He - most of us felt that he is precisely the type of person you want as ambassador of Ukraine.

And so they made a lot of progress in establishing that the view of virtually everyone involved was that there was a quid pro quo connecting the military aid to an investigation of the Bidens. And also, I think they also made a nice connection at the very end of the hearing, when Chairman Schiff said that it's true that the military aid was indeed given to Ukraine without those demands being fulfilled. But it actually occurred 48 hours after it became known that the IG report involving this whistleblower had gone to Congress, and so the White House was aware that this was about to blow open into the public sphere.

The Republicans also scored some points, I believe. You know, the Republicans noted that and established a timeline of their own. And the most important, in my view, was that it's clear that the Ukraine did not know about the hold on the aid until around August 29, when a political article ran. And Taylor pretty much confirmed that by saying that as soon as that article ran talking about the hold, he got a virtually immediate call from the Ukraine.

Now, the aid was released only about 10 or 11 days after that. So the question for a lot of people is going to be, how significant, really, is that? They didn't really know about the quid pro quo, if there was one. And more importantly, the aid got to them. And so the argument is sort of like - you know, in Watergate, they made it into the office. You know, they actually did a criminal act.

KING: Yeah.

TURLEY: Here, it's not clear. And so I think both sides have good narratives here. And the question is not whether the Democrats scored points, which I think they did - there was a lot disturbing in this hearing - but whether they gained ground on impeachment. And that, I'm not quite convinced about.

KING: OK. Let me break apart two of those things. And one of them is the question of criminality. House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff told my colleague Steve Inskeep that Trump had committed bribery and high crimes and misdemeanors. He said this in an interview earlier this week. You have written that you disagree. Why? And why is that important?

TURLEY: I'm afraid history does not support Chairman Schiff on his suggestion of a bribery article of impeachment. His position is that bribery was defined differently during the colonial times and had this much broader meaning. On the face of it, I thought that was a little bit humorous because, you know, Chairman Schiff seems to support a living Constitution, so suddenly, he sounds like an originalist. But the problem is that it was not the case - that bribery was defined differently, but it was not as broadly defined as Chairman Schiff suggests.

Indeed, there were exchanges during the Constitutional Convention, particularly between Mason and Madison, where there was an objection that treason and bribery were too narrow. And there was a suggestion - or a proposal to include the term maladministration, a much broader term for impeachment. That was rejected. But it was spurred - that suggestion came about because they felt bribery was too narrow.

I think if they use a bribery article of impeachment, it will undermine them dramatically from a constitutional standpoint. You will follow tragedy with farce, in my view.

KING: OK. You have said that the Democrats' case is too narrowly focused, that they need - that if you want to impeach a president, you need a wide foundation to be successful. What do you mean by that? What do they need to do exactly?

TURLEY: Well, there's obviously a rather last-minute paradigm shift in what is being argued as impeachable. For three years, Democratic members have argued that impeachable and even criminal acts are well-established on the record, particularly from special counsel Mueller. None of that stuff is being proposed as an article of impeachment thus far. And instead, they're focusing solely on this Ukrainian controversy. That would be the narrowest foundation of any impeachment in history, particularly for a president.

You know, if you take a look at the three past impeachments, the gold standard is Nixon, which is ironic because it didn't result in an impeachment.

KING: Yeah.

TURLEY: But it was broad. It was so strong that he resigned. This is very similar to the Johnson impeachment. Even though there were 11 articles there, they were all based basically on the same types of claims dealing with the Tenure in Office Act (ph) and the termination of the secretary of war. That failed. It failed because even members of the opposing party felt that it was an abuse of the impeachment process. And Clinton was also quite narrow. This would be even narrower still.

KING: OK. Jonathan Turley is a law professor at George Washington University. Professor Turley, thanks so much for your time.

TURLEY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.