The presidential impeachment inquiry: Harvard Law constitutional scholars weigh in

Gavel resting on piece of paper

Credit: iStock/Bill Oxford

On September 18, the Washington Post reported the existence of a whistleblower complaint alleging that President Donald Trump abused his office for political gain in a phone call with Ukraine’s newly elected president, Volodymyr Zelensky. Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi subsequently announced plans to launch a formal impeachment inquiry. As the story has continued to develop and new details have continued to emerge, constitutional scholars at Harvard Law School—including Cass Sunstein and Laurence Tribe ’66, both of whom have written books on the history and practice of impeachment—have weighed in on both the current controversy and on this rarely used and poorly understood congressional power.

Noted conservative lawyer on Trump: ‘This man terrifies me’

Harvard Law School professor Charles Fried and Case Western Reserve Law professor Jonathan Adler explain why a speedy impeachment inquiry is necessary.

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Stalemate This Week In The Impeachment Inquiry. What Happens Next?

A war of words and a stalemate in Washington this week, after the White House declared that it will not cooperate with the impeachment inquiry. President Trump tweeted that the Democratic-led House inquiry was “a totally compromised kangaroo court.” Democrats said the president is obstructing justice, and vowed to press on. So, what happens now? Guests: Noah Feldman, professor at Harvard Law School. He tweets @noahrfeldman. His piece in the New York Times is called “This Is a Constitutional Crisis. What Happens Next?” He tweets @noahrfeldman. Nancy Gertner, former Massachusetts federal judge, senior lecturer at Harvard Law School and WBUR legal analyst. She tweets @ngertner.

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Trump’s Defiance of the House Inquiry Is Hard to Defend

An article by Cass Sunstein: The White House’s fierce response to the impeachment inquiry by the House of Representatives, calling the enterprise “an unconstitutional effort” and a violation of “constitutionally mandated due process,” seems to make one commitment: noncooperation. The key sentence in the eight-page letter, signed by White House counsel Pat A. Cipollone, is this: “Given that your inquiry lacks any legitimate constitutional foundation, any pretense of fairness, or even the most elementary due process protections, the Executive Branch cannot be expected to participate in it.”

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This Is a Constitutional Crisis. What Happens Next?

An op-ed by Noah Feldman: For the first time since President Richard Nixon refused to turn over the White House tapes, the United States is facing a genuine constitutional crisis. To be sure, Donald Trump had already created a crisis in the presidency by abusing the power of his office to pressure foreign governments to investigate his political rival Joe Biden. But that act on its own didn’t count as a constitutional crisis, because the Constitution prescribes an answer to presidential abuse of office: impeachment. Now that President Trump has announced — via a letter signed by Pat Cipollone, the White House counsel — that he will not cooperate in any way with the impeachment inquiry begun in the House of Representatives, we no longer have just a crisis of the presidency. We also have a breakdown in the fundamental structure of government under the Constitution. That counts as a constitutional crisis.

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The time for waiting is over. The House must move on Trump impeachment articles now.

An op-ed by Laurence H. Tribe: The White House’s blanket stonewalling of the House impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump isn’t just deeply troubling or further indirect evidence of the president’s underlying abuse of public power for private gain. It signals another clear ground for his impeachment: obstruction of Congress. Article III of the Nixon articles of impeachment provides the closest precedent to what Trump did here: He directed the State Department to prevent Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, from testifying about what his texts revealed to corroborate the whistleblower complaint about a scheme to withhold military aid in order to extort Ukraine into meddling in the 2020 election. The White House counsel followed up by telling House leaders there would be no cooperation with an inquiry he called illegitimate and unfair.

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Impeachment: Chief Justice John Roberts would be the ‘umpire’ in Senate trial of President Trump

The late Chief Justice William Rehnquist was a busy man on Jan. 20, 1999. The impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton was in its second week, and Rehnquist had to stop presiding over an oral argument at the Supreme Court, cross the street, and preside over the Senate. One of the lawyers arguing before the high court that day was John Roberts. Once one of Rehnquist’s law clerks at the high court, Roberts could be juggling the same two jobs as his former boss soon. … Restraint might be difficult in the current political environment, however. Richard Lazarus, a Harvard Law School professor and Roberts’ roommate when both were students there in the 1970s, says Senate Democrats and Republicans worked together to set rules for the Clinton trial. That may be harder this time around. “He knows that when he crosses First Street, he’s going to be putting himself right in the middle of the workings of the political branch,” Lazarus says. “He’s going to work hard to keep above the fray.”

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Trump’s Sweeping Case Against Impeachment Is a Political Strategy

Breathtaking in scope, defiant in tone, the White House’s refusal to cooperate with the House impeachment inquiry amounts to an unabashed challenge to America’s longstanding constitutional order. In effect, President Trump is making the sweeping assertion that he can ignore Congress as it weighs his fate because he considers the impeachment effort unfair and the Democrats who initiated it biased against him, an argument that channeled his anger even as it failed to pass muster with many scholars on Wednesday. … Jack Goldsmith, a Harvard Law School professor and former senior Justice Department official under President George W. Bush, said Mr. Trump’s position was more political than constitutional. “The White House letter’s legal objections don’t have merit,” he said. “The letter, like the ‘official impeachment inquiry’ itself, is a hardball tactic designed to achieve maximum political advantage” before the public.

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The Impeachment Loophole No One’s Talking About

A nugget of political arithmetic is suddenly everywhere: “Two-thirds majority.” This is the share of votes required to convict President Trump in an impeachment trial in the United States Senate. That’s 67 senators, if you’re counting—or, in the glass-half-empty variation, the number of Republican senators required to jump ship is 20. … “The Constitution contains quorum requirements [elsewhere] and clearly distinguishes between percentages of a particular chamber and percentages of ‘members present,’” said Laurence Tribe, a professor of constitutional law at Harvard Law School and the co-author of the book To End a Presidency: The Power of Impeachment. “That language in the provision for Senate conviction on impeachment charges is quite deliberate, creating precisely the possibility” described above.

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Laurence Tribe: Trump “Is Not Above The Law And He Will Learn His Lesson”

The White House tried to justify its refusal to comply with Democrats’ subpoenas by claiming that their impeachment inquiry is unconstitutional. Laurence Tribe explains to Lawrence O’Donnell why that White House argument is “legally vacuous” and would rebuffed by the courts for putting the president above the law.

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These officials better lawyer up

Since the release of the astonishing transcript of the call between President Trump and Ukrainian President Zelensky, Democrats have, as one would expect, zeroed in on the multiple legal problems Trump created for himself. … The Justice Department is trying to deny Barr has any role in this fiasco. (“An initial Justice Department statement on Barr’s role issued at the same moment the call notes were made public seemed only to rule out the attorney general being asked to work with Ukraine on such a probe, but a subsequent clarification broadened the denial to cover any presidential request to Barr to launch an inquiry into Biden.”) Even if this is true, the Justice Department found there was nothing wrong with Trump’s conduct. Are we to believe Barr didn’t know about that either? Constitutional scholar Larry Tribe tells me, “It’s inconceivable that Barr didn’t know, and the decision to treat the president’s manifestly criminal conversation with Ukraine’s leader, a mix of bribery and extortion, as not worthy of a referral for further investigation seems to me inexplicable unless one assumes either corrupt motives or gross stupidity or both.”

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No, a ‘Failed’ Impeachment Attempt Doesn’t Nullify Donald Trump’s First Term and Let Him Serve a Third One

Legal experts have dismissed claims that President Donald Trump will be permitted to run for a third term if he is impeached by the House but the Senate fails to confirm it, branding them “categorically false.” … Indeed, there appears to be an information gap generated by the announcement of the impeachment inquiry, given there are so few examples to draw from, explained professor at Harvard Law School Cass Sunstein, the author of Impeachment: A Citizen’s Guide and a former Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the Obama administration. “If a person is indicted by a prosecutor it’s not a trivial matter, even if there is no conviction, and you can see impeachment as similar to an indictment,” Sunstein told Newsweek. “It is a real mark on a human being and even more impeachment is a real mark on a president. There have only been two indictments in our history and they have both had a huge impact on what that person could do while president and also on their historical standing.”

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Richard Nixon’s WH Counsel Sends ‘Urgent’ Message: ‘Trump Wants to End American Sovereignty’

… John Dean, the former Chief White House Counsel to Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal, said Trump’s actions were contradictory to 230 years of American legal traditions. “URGENT: Trump wants to end America sovereignty by allowing foreign governments to help him win. It is against the law and 230 years of practice,” Dean Tweeted. “He wants American voters to choose elected leaders beholden to foreign powers, not Americans. The act of a dictator!,” he added. … Harvard Law professor Laurence Tribe’s reaction invoked a similar tone. “So now Trump is openly asking CHINA to go after the Bidens!,” Tribe Tweeted. “He’s poking the nation in the eye and daring us to hold him accountable for repeatedly violating American law and sovereignty. We have no choice but to remove him if we want to preserve our country.”

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What to Do If Congress Can’t Get More Information

Since the Democrats gained control of the House, the Trump administration has taken the most extreme position on congressional oversight in American history: In essence, it has argued that no demand from Congress, for information about anything, to anyone in the executive branch, is binding on the president. While many presidents have struggled with the reach of congressional oversight, this administration has been particularly defiant. … As I wrote on Tuesday, the beginning of a formal impeachment inquiry should strengthen Congress’s hand as it seeks court enforcement of its demands for information. But should Congress even pursue such requests? Laurence Tribe, a professor at Harvard Law School, (whose recent book, To End a Presidency, co-written with Joshua Matz, explores many political and legal aspects of impeachment) told me in an email: The expectation that the evidence thereby made available will be explosive makes the impeachment process more difficult in circumstances like this, where the publicly known facts already justify a conclusion that the president committed high crimes and misdemeanors. That creates something of a paradox. The way in which a formal impeachment inquiry makes potentially incriminating evidence much more readily available tends to raise expectations and indirectly raises the bar for what it takes to impeach a president who abuses his powers for personal gain.

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The Founders Defined Treason to Protect Free Speech

An op-ed by Cass Sunstein: President Donald Trump is not reluctant to accuse people of treason. On Sunday, Trump targeted Representative Adam Schiff, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, proclaiming on Twitter that he wanted the California Democrat “questioned at the highest level for Fraud & Treason.” On Monday, he elaborated, musing that a “fake and terrible statement” by Schiff might just be grounds for his “Arrest for Treason? Trump’s tweets are often over-the-top. But these were particularly heinous because they are inconsistent with a key provision of the U.S. Constitution, and call up the very concerns that motivated its drafting. Treason is the only crime specifically defined in the U.S. Constitution: Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.

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‘Uncharted Ground’: All the Ways This Impeachment Fight Is Nothing Like Watergate

It’s only natural for Americans wrapping their heads around the idea that Donald Trump might actually get impeached to think back to Richard Nixon. This was the premise of the first season of the wildly popular podcast Slow Burn, the animating thread of so many late-night prognostications—on Twitter, at bars, at dinner with your parents—at the height of Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election. …Well, for one thing, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has formally launched an impeachment inquiry, a step Democrats never formally took amid Mueller Mania. And as Noah Feldman, a Harvard legal historian who has closely tracked the various investigations into Trump, explained over the course of two conversations this week, Pelosi’s reasoning was transparent: People can understand the idea of Trump bullying someone over the phone to go after a personal rival more easily than they can shadowy political consultants or dimwitted adult sons requesting the aid of hackers backed by Moscow. Or as Feldman—who said we are in “uncharted ground” at this point—put it, “The report produced by the [whistleblower] does in like four pages what Mueller couldn’t in 400,” adding, “So instead of the Slow Burn, we just had one big download… of the case to impeach.”

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Harvard’s Tribe on Why Impeachment Is Necessary (Podcast)

Constitutional scholar and Harvard Law Professor, Laurence Tribe, explains why the impeachment of President Trump is warranted and the path the House should take in drafting articles of impeachment. He speaks to Bloomberg’s June Grasso.

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If the House is going to impeach Trump, it better have a plan

An op-ed by Laurence Tribe: There is now powerful evidence that President Trump committed impeachable offenses by soliciting (and all but coercing) Ukraine’s president to interfere with the 2020 presidential election. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has confirmed that the House will move swiftly to investigate this threat to democracy, national security, and the separation of powers. The first stages of that impeachment inquiry are already underway. It’s therefore important to think ahead about what should happen as the House inquiry unfolds — especially in the House Intelligence and Judiciary committees, chaired respectively by Adam Schiff and Jerrold Nadler. If the House is going to impeach the president, it better have a plan.

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How does impeachment work?

MSNBC’s Richard Lui outlines the process for impeaching a sitting U.S. President, and discusses the current impeachment inquiry into President Trump with Cass Sunstein, a Harvard University Law Professor and author of the book “Impeachment: A Citizen’s Guide,” Krishna Patel, a former assistant U.S. attorney, and Katie Phang, an MSNBC legal contributor. Sunstein provides background on what types of actions qualify as “impeachable offenses,” while Patel and Phang give their thoughts on what will happen next in regards to the impeachment inquiry. Phang also noted that while Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, could theoretically decide to go against a House impeachment vote and elect not hold a trial, that would be highly unlikely, as the optics would be very poor.

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One Easy-to-Draw Line on Impeachment: Inauguration Day

An op-ed by Cass Sunstein: Soon the House of Representatives will have to decide what, if any, alleged misconduct by President Donald Trump should go into formal articles of impeachment. Some of those decisions will be hard. But here’s an easy one: Under the Constitution, the House should not consider any actions, however terrible, that Trump took before he became president. (There’s one exception; we’ll get to it in due course.) This principle has bite. For example, it would exclude Trump’s alleged involvement in his lawyer’s hush-money payments to cover up sexual encounters with the porn star Stormy Daniels and the Playboy model Karen McDougal. It would also exclude misconduct by Trump’s businesses before 2017.

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Trump’s ‘Civil War’ quote tweet is actually grounds for impeachment, says Harvard Law Professor

President Donald Trump’s recent tweet quoting a longtime evangelical pastor who warned of a “Civil War” if Democrats seriously pursue removing him from office could actually be grounds for impeachment, one Harvard Law professor said. “If the Democrats are successful in removing the President from office (which they will never be), it will cause a Civil War like fracture in this Nation from which our Country will never heal,” Trump tweeted on Sunday night. … The president’s tweet was immediately met with backlash, and Harvard Law professor John Coates argued that the social media post itself is an “independent basis” for lawmakers to remove him from the White House. “This tweet is itself an independent basis for impeachment – a sitting president threatening civil war if Congress exercises its constitutionally authorized power,” Coates wrote on Twitter on Monday.

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A Special Counsel Must Investigate Rudy Giuliani and Bill Barr

An article by Noah Feldman: Believe it or not, it’s time for a new special counsel investigation. Not targeting Donald Trump himself: Congress can and will investigate the president in the course of its impeachment inquiry. But as a result of the whistle-blower complaint, a separate investigation does need to get underway immediately. The Department of Justice must investigate Rudy Giuliani’s potential crimes in trying to get Ukraine to interfere in the 2020 U.S. election. It also needs to investigate whether White House officials criminally covered up evidence of Trump’s call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy. And because the whistle-blower complaint alleges that the top law enforcement official in the federal government, Attorney General William Barr, “appears to be involved” in these events, a special counsel must be appointed.

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Whistle-Blower Memo Shows Impeachable Crimes Beyond Trump-Ukraine Call

An article by Noah Feldman:  The whistle-blower complaint against Donald Trump, in just a few pages, establishes the evidence for a quid pro quo between Trump and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy — unfreezing aid payments in exchange for investigating Joe Biden and digging into an unsupported fringe theory about the origins of the Trump-Russia collusion allegation. Second, it provides strong evidence that some in the Trump administration understood that Trump’s call to Zelenskiy was wrong and potentially criminal — and, third, that they took steps to cover it up. Despite its brevity, the whistle-blower complaint does just about everything that Robert Mueller’s report failed to do over several hundred pages: provide proof of Trump soliciting interference in a U.S. election from a foreign government. The complaint also documents Trump abusing his office for personal gain. Abusing one’s office for personal gain is a textbook definition of the federal crime of bribery and extortion. It’s also a textbook definition of an impeachable offense.

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The Importance of Adam Schiff

The Democrats don’t have a stellar recent record of conducting congressional hearings. They couldn’t figure out how to respond effectively to Brett Kavanaugh’s righteous anger or to ask some of the probing follow-up questions that his testimony raised. Democrats also struggledthis year to turn hearings on the Russia scandal into the kind of compelling television that would move public opinion…I am glad to see that the party has given a central role to Adam Schiff of California, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. He’s a much more effective questioner and speaker than most members of the judiciary or oversight committees…Schiff “is focused like a laser on national security. That’s at the heart of why Trump must be impeached. He endangers the nation for his own benefit,” Laurence Tribe of Harvard Law School wrote this week.

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Did Trump Just Impeach Himself?

The White House memo reconstructing a July phone call between President Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky landed on the internet on Wednesday like a dress that is either clearly blue and black or clearly white and gold, depending on the viewer. …We asked a group of legal experts what to make of it all. …

“The phone call ‘clearly establishes high crimes and misdemeanors’ ”

Laurence H. Tribe is a professor of constitutional law at Harvard Law School. The White House’s reconstruction of the phone call clearly establishes high crimes and misdemeanors, even if no further evidence were available. It shows a president responding to a desperate request by an ally for military assistance that he is secretly withholding by indicating that he might be able to help but—and his use of the word “though” is telling—he would appreciate the ally’s help in going after the former vice president and his son. …

Trump revealed ‘his intent to use U.S. government resources and power to further his personal agenda’

Jennifer Taub is the Bruce W. Nichols visiting professor of law at Harvard Law School. Placed in its full context, this partial summary of this single 30-minute phone conversation between Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky provides compelling evidence of an impeachable offense. Remember at the time of the call, President Trump was withholding $250 million in military aid to Ukraine. Furthermore, this document itself states it is not a literal transcript, but based on “notes and recollections.”

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President Trump’s Ukraine call and the dangers of personal diplomacy

President Trump’s comments in a phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in July have prompted the House of Representatives to launch an impeachment inquiry. Trump reportedly pressured his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate Joe Biden and the former vice president’s son, Hunter Biden, who served on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company. He also offered to enlist U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr and his personal attorney, Rudolph W. Giuliani, in that effort. Trump’s action — far from the first controversy the president has created while interacting with a foreign counterpart — appears to be a flagrant abuse of power. But it is one enabled by a system that extends presidents enormous freedom in conducting personal diplomacy with limited transparency and few checks on their power…Similarly, Trump often abruptly shifts American policy with little consultation with his aides, U.S. allies or Congress. And legally, he’s free to do so. “Putting it brutally, Article II gives the president the authority to do, and say, and pledge, awful things in the secret conduct of U.S. foreign policy,” Harvard law professor Jack Goldsmith tweeted. “That is a very dangerous discretion, to be sure, but has long been thought worth it on balance.”

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There’s Plenty of Impeachment-Worthy Evidence in the Ukraine Call Transcript

An op-ed by Noah Feldman: A White House memo recording Donald Trump’s July phone conversation with Volodymyr Zelenskiy is damning. Trump’s request that the president of Ukraine initiate a corruption investigation into Joe Biden and his son Hunter wasn’t incidental. On the contrary, it appears to have been the point of the call, along with an additional request to investigate the origins of the Russian collusion allegations against Trump. Trump brought up the investigations nearly every time he opened his mouth. Zelenskiy responded positively, suggesting he got the point. There is more than enough evidence here to support an allegation that Trump was not merely asking the president of Ukraine “to do us a favor,” as he put it, but rather proposing a quid pro quo in which U.S. aid for Ukraine would be reinstated in exchange for an investigation into the Mueller investigation, and into Biden. That would constitute an abuse of power by the president of the United States for his own benefit, since Biden was and is the leading contender for the Democratic nomination to challenge Trump in 2020. Such an abuse, if proven, would almost certainly qualify as an impeachable offense.

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Donald Trump’s call with Ukrainian president drips with impeachable crimes

An op-ed by Laurence Tribe: Let us count the ways. The White House readout of President Donald Trump’s phone conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky shows that the American president has committed a multitude of high crimes and misdemeanors, all of them impeachable. Even without considering the many prior offenses that were surfaced in the Mueller report and in the special counsel’s prosecutions of numerous Trump allies and associates, including in the Southern District of New York, this readout — which must be the least incriminating version the White House could compose despite its remarkable skills at shading the truth or falsifying it altogether — is utterly devastating. The “high crimes and misdemeanors” that the readout reveals — to use the Constitution’s term for impeachable offenses beyond “treason” and “bribery” (both of which the readout comes close to establishing) — begin with Trump abusing the foreign policy powers entrusted to the president by Article II in order to serve his own political interests rather than the interests of the American people.

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On the road to impeachment? Legal and political experts weigh in

Harvard Law faculty Charles Fried, Nancy Gertner and Ronald Klain weigh in on the significance of the move toward impeachment of President Trump, and whether it will matter in the end if it reaches the Republican-controlled Senate.

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What the Law Says About Impeachment and Trump’s Ukraine Phone Call

An article by Noah Feldman:  If it’s true (and we may soon find out) that Donald Trump froze U.S. government aid to Ukraine and made it clear to the Ukrainian president that he would unfreeze it if Ukraine were to investigate Joe Biden, that is certainly an outrage. Depending on how you define the term, it may also be a “high crime” deserving of impeachment under the Constitution. But is it a crime under existing federal law? The answer turns out to be tricky. And if history is a guide, the question will be hotly debated in any process of impeachment.

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As Calls Grow Louder, What Would The Impeachment Of President Trump Look Like?

Cass Sunstein, professor at Harvard Law and author of ‘Impeachment: A Citizen’s Guide’, explains what the process would look like for President Trump.

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President Trump’s Call With Ukraine President Raises Questions

There are more reactions today to a July call President Trump made in which he asked Ukraine’s leader to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son. This weekend, the president admitted to discussing the vice president and his son, Hunter, with Ukranian president Volodymyr Zelensky. “The conversation I had was largely congratulatory, largely corruption, all of the corruption taking place. Was largely the fact that we don’t want our people, like Vice President Biden and his son, creating to the corruption already in the Ukraine,” the president said. The call raises a number of critical questions, including whether the president acted unlawfully. Guests [include]…Nancy Gertner.

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Congress Can’t Ignore a Clearly Impeachable Offense

An op-ed by Cass Sunstein: There are a lot of misconceptions about impeachment. Incompetence isn’t impeachable. It’s terrible for a president to violate the oath of office, but doing so is not, by itself, an impeachable offense. Even posing a danger to the American people isn’t a legitimate basis for impeachment. Under the Constitution, what is necessary is a “high crime or misdemeanor,” meaning an egregious abuse of presidential authority. Some crimes would not count; consider shoplifting or disorderly conduct. An action that is not criminal might be impeachable; consider a six-month vacation, an effort to jail political enemies or an abuse of the pardon power (by, for example, pardoning associates who have engaged in criminal activity at the president’s behest). If you want to understand what counts as impeachable, read the Declaration of Independence. The Constitution’s impeachment provisions were written against the background set by the Declaration. Read against that background, one thing becomes blindingly obvious: If the president has clearly committed an impeachable offense, the House of Representatives is not entitled to look the other way.

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