A view from outside the U.S. House of Representatives. (Courtesy/Wikimedia Commons)
On Thursday, the U.S. House of Representatives took a vote it’s only held twice before in the last 100 years.
On a 232-196 vote, the House passed a resolution formalizing and setting rules for an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump.
The inquiry concerns accusations that Trump unduly pressured the government of Ukraine to conduct a politically damaging investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden, a leading 2020 presidential candidate.
The resolution brings the impeachment inquiry into a new phase that’ll include public hearings Democrats say will air evidence that the president abused his power. They’ve also cited national security and constitutional concerns to justify the impeachment inquiry.
Senate Republicans responded with a resolution calling the inquiry “unprecedented and undemocratic.” Trump took to Twitter to condemn the impeachment as a “Hoax” and the “Greatest Witch Hunt in American History.”
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Norman Williams, a constitutional law expert at the Willamette University College of Law who serves as the Ken and Claudia Peterson Professor of Law and director of the Center for Constitutional Government, weighed in on some of the claims made about the impeachment inquiry.
Much of the language surrounding the impeachment process has resembled that of a criminal proceeding, with talk of a trial, conviction and acquittal. Trump has complained about a lack of “due process.” But Williams said the comparison to a criminal trial is based on a common misperception.
“This is not a criminal trial where all of the rights of the accused come into play,” said Williams.
Unlike a criminal trial, he said the Constitution leaves it to the House of Representatives to determine how much involvement it wants to give the president.
He said that the rules adopted for the impeachment process by the House on Thursday allow the president’s lawyers to participate in the House Judiciary Committee’s consideration of articles of impeachment. They can cross-examine witnesses and ask for their own witnesses. Lawyers for Bill Clinton, the last president to face impeachment, were allowed to do the same. William said it’s assumed that members of Congress from the president’s party will defend his interests.
“Is the President getting his due process? My answer is, yes,” he said.
Three previous presidents have faced impeachment: Andrew Johnson in 1868, Richard Nixon in 1974 (who resigned before being impeached) and Clinton in 1998.
Under the Constitution, the president can be impeached for “high crimes and misdemeanors,” which Williams said the Constitution does not define.
In 1970, when then U.S. Rep Gerald Ford (who would later ascend to the presidency after Nixon resigned) was asked what an impeachable offense is, he answered that it’s “whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.”
But Williams pushed back on that definition. He said the phrase “high crimes and misdemeanors” has some meaning that limits what a president can be impeached for.
He pointed out that Trump is being accused of pressuring Ukraine to investigate Biden for his personal political gain. He added, “I don't think Democrats need to push the envelope here on what constitutes a high crime or misdemeanor in order to defend their proposed articles of impeachment.”
Republicans have criticized Democrats for earlier taking testimony behind closed-doors in the House Intelligence Committee before formally launching an impeachment inquiry. But Williams said that it was appropriate to do so when it involved sensitive information, specifically a presidential phone call to the president of Ukraine.
He pointed out that both Nixon and Clinton faced impeachment after special counsel investigations handed over their findings to Congress. Both investigations looked into the conduct of each president and were conducted out of the view of the public.
Trump faced a special counsel investigation over Russian interference in the 2016 election, which isn’t tied to the current accusations facing the president. Because there hadn’t been a special counsel investigation into the more recent accusations over Ukraine, it made sense for the House Intelligence Committee to hold hearings behind closed doors where Republicans members were still allowed to participate.
Williams said that impeachment is a political, not criminal process, which has costs as well as benefits to the president. If the House passes articles of impeachment, the Republican-controlled Senate will hold an impeachment trial and can remove the president on a two-thirds vote. Williams said that even if members of Congress determine the president did something unlawful, he said it’s “perfectly legitimate” if they determine his actions don’t merit his removal from office.
Thursday’s vote was along party lines and included Oregon's House delegation.
Rep. Kurt Schrader, a Democrat who represents the Salem area, voted for the resolution and issued a statement explaining his vote.
“Our Republican colleagues have requested a more public process,” he said in the statement. “Here it is. I hope every Oregonian will form their own opinions based on their own interpretation of witness statements. Our national security and Constitutional integrity are at stake.”
Oregon Democratic Representatives Peter DeFazio and Suzanne Bonamici both issued statements that cited the president’s admissions, as well as the potential threat to national security and the Constitution for their votes.
Oregon’s other Democratic representative Earl Blumenauer took to Twitter.
“Not surprisingly, no Republicans voted with us,” wrote Blumenauer. “When will my Republican colleagues have the courage to do in public what they must be thinking in private?”
Greg Walden, Oregon’s lone Republican congressman, also took to Twitter. He criticized the process as “flawed,” lacking in transparency and departing from past impeachment inquiries by denying both sides an equal role.
“If you are going to overturn a vote of the American people, it must be a fair and just process,” he wrote. “This investigation has been neither and this resolution is just another step in the overly partisan effort to impeach the President that started the day he was elected.”
Both of Oregon’s Democratic senators, Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, have publicly supported the inquiry.
Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or [email protected] or @jakethomas2009.