Today, at the impeachment hearings, Prof. Jonathan Turley performed a great public and national service by eviscerating the Democratic theory of impeachment legally, logically and historically. I cannot wait to see if his decisive testimony is given half the prominence by the New York Times as the various headlines shouting about how an official would have done things differently if he or she were President. Unlike almost all of the testimony so far, Turley’s was based on facts and law, and addressed the issue at hand: is there any justification for impeachment proceedings?
It’s a wonderful and clear piece of scholarship that addresses several approaches to the matter that I had wanted to address, notably how the three previous impeachment efforts compare with this one.
Every citizen should read it all; of course, almost none will. The testimony is long, because it is thorough; I have edited it for ease of reading, eliminating footnotes. If you want to read the original document, it is here. Ethics Alarms is going to present this in several parts. Send that link to your smug impeachment-cheering friends, relatives and social media contacts. Tell them that unless they read it, you really don’t want to hear any more on the subject from them, because they want to remain ignorant.
I am proud—relieved?—to find that this serious and admirable scholar embraces many of the positions I have discussed here, though in far more detail and with considerably more authority.
Chairman Nadler, ranking member Collins, members of the Judiciary Committee, my name is Jonathan Turley, and I am a law professor at George Washington University where I hold the J.B. and Maurice C. Shapiro Chair of Public Interest Law. 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.”2 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.
I appear today in my academic capacity to present views founded in prior academic work on impeachment and the separation of powers. My testimony does not reflect the views or approval of CBS News, the BBC, or the newspapers for which I write as a columnist. My testimony was written exclusively by myself with editing assistance from Nicholas Contarino, Andrew Hile, Thomas Huff, and Seth Tate explores 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 good- faith 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). In addition to my testimony with other constitutional scholars at the Clinton impeachment hearings, I also represented former Attorneys General during the Clinton impeachment litigation over privilege disputes triggered by the investigation of Independent Counsel Ken Starr. I also served as lead counsel in a bill of attainder case, the sister of impeachment that will be discussed below.
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. Continue reading