© 2024 Ideastream Public Media

1375 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland, Ohio 44115
(216) 916-6100 | (877) 399-3307

WKSU is a public media service licensed to Kent State University and operated by Ideastream Public Media.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Your Questions About The Impeachment Inquiry


This week, the impeachment inquiry triggered by President Trump's alleged dealings with foreign governments enters an important new phase. The House committees leading the investigation will start holding public hearings on Wednesday. The proceedings will be televised, so the public will have an opportunity to hear directly from witnesses, many of whom have already answered questions during the closed-door hearings. Now, there have already been significant developments in this matter. But many of these developments have been reported as leaks to the media, or many people coming forward are prominent in their field but not well known.

And those factors, coupled with wildly different interpretations, mainly along partisan lines of what this means and why this matters, has caused us to think about how confusing this must be. So yesterday on this program, we asked you to send us your questions, and we're going to start trying to answer them. For this, we've called once again Timothy Naftali. He's one of four authors of the book "Impeachment: An American History."

Professor Naftali, thank you so much for joining us.

TIMOTHY NAFTALI: My pleasure, Michel.

MARTIN: So one of the questions that many people have asked is, what did the president allegedly do wrong? For example, Charles Corcoran (ph) - he says he's from Elmira, N.Y. - sent us a long list of very specific questions saying, what law or what statute or regulation is the president alleged to have broken? And is this written down somewhere?

NAFTALI: Well, when the founders were thinking about including the power of impeachment in the Constitution, they were thinking about those moments when the American people and state legislatures would have chosen a person who would turn out to be a threat in some way to the Constitution. And they came to the conclusion that certainly, if that person were found guilty of bribery or of treason, they should be removed.

But then they thought about that third category. And this is in direct response to your listeners' question. They thought about incidents where that person would have committed a high crime that didn't necessarily mean a violation of a statute but a crime against the state. The concept of high crimes and misdemeanors was a catchall for abuses of power - misuse of the powers of the presidency to act in a way that threatened the constitutional system that those founders had put together in Philadelphia.

So one doesn't have to find an actual violation of a law for an act to be impeachable. So in other words, think of it this way - not all crimes are impeachable, and not all impeachable offenses are crimes.

MARTIN: That's helpful. Thank you for that. So here's another commonly asked question - and it's interesting that this was one of the most commonly asked questions - which is, what happens to the no-shows - the people who have refused to be interviewed by the committee? Steve Ashcraft (ph) from California was one of the people who wrote in about this. He says, when people are requested to appear and testify and don't show up, what happens to them? Are they arrested or subpoenaed if they don't appear? What's next?

NAFTALI: Well, that is a question of noncompliance with congressional subpoenas. When we're talking about the House, the House has three options. One - they can try to arrest you. Well, the House of Representatives hasn't actually arrested anyone for contempt of Congress since 1935. It's a power that is just not used now. The second option they have is to go to the Department of Justice and ask the executive branch to prosecute the person for not complying with a congressional subpoena. Well, that's not going to happen in a case where the president actually asked that person not to testify.

The third option they have is to go to the courts and seek a civil penalty. Now, the House can do that if they pass a resolution of contempt against the person who did not show up for the subpoena.

MARTIN: A similar question along those lines - there were several along these lines as well. This one is from Hal Marshall (ph) from Dallas, Texas, and he asks, can the president be compelled to testify in the House or Senate? Can the president or other witnesses assert the Fifth Amendment? What about that?

NAFTALI: Well, those are two different questions. You can as a U.S. citizen or U.S. person always assert the Fifth Amendment. With regard to the president, that's a very interesting question because, again, there's an issue of enforcement and separation of powers. The president is the executive branch. And this issue has never been tested in court. One of the striking aspects of this issue is that the impeachment process has never been tested in court, probably and likely because it takes too long.

So what has happened in the case of previous executives who've been under the threat of impeachment is they've tried to work through some kind of modus operandi, some kind of a way forward with the House. In the case of Nixon, he - at a certain point, he just had his lawyers say, enough is enough. I'm not going to give you anymore. And at that point, the House just included that noncompliance in an article of impeachment.

So so far, there's never been a court injunction forcing a president to appear. At the moment, the only thing the House can do is just include that in an article of impeachment and see whether that article is approved by the Judiciary Committee and then approved by the entire House.

MARTIN: And, finally, here's one from Melissa Hadaba (ph) from Eugene, Ore. A lot of people had questions about what role the president plays in all this. But she asks, if a president is going through impeachment, can they still run for reelection?

NAFTALI: Well, if President Trump is impeached and not removed by the Senate, he would become the first president in U.S. history - an impeached president - to run for reelection. There is nothing stopping him from running for reelection because if he's acquitted by the Senate, he's been found not guilty. And in our society, if you're found not guilty, you're not guilty.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, professor Naftali, is there something about this process that you would want to tell us that perhaps we haven't thought about or what we should keep in mind as we are watching all this continue to unfold?

NAFTALI: Well, one of the most important elements of the Trump era is that this president is committed to disrupting what those of us who study the president call the norms - in other words, the standard practices of the presidency. And what we know already from the formally released testimony is that many of the foreign policy professionals who will testify publicly next week are people who were concerned about the cost to our national security of the president's disruption of norms.

Now, this may all seem very complicated. Well, what I hope the public will look for are the real consequences. Why does this matter? This is not a matter of etiquette, the president not using the right knife and fork in public. This is about those processes that over decades the United States has put in place and professionals have upheld.

MARTIN: That was Timothy Naftali. He's one of the authors of "Impeachment: An American History."

Professor Naftali, thank you so much for talking with us once again. I'm sure we'll talk again.

NAFTALI: Thank you, Michel. My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.