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Constitutional Law Professor Stephen Vladeck Discusses White House Impeachment Letter


Today the White House sent a full-throated response to the Democratic impeachment inquiry in the House. The eight-page letter is addressed to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the chairs of three committees investigating the president. It's signed by White House counsel Pat Cipollone. It says President Trump rejects the Democrats', quote, "baseless unconstitutional efforts to overturn the democratic process." That means the executive and legislative branches of government are now in a standoff. And so we have reached constitutional law professor Stephen Vladeck for some insight into what happens now.

Welcome back to the program.

STEPHEN VLADECK: Thanks, Ari. Great to be with you.

SHAPIRO: So let's just start with your first impression. What jumps out to you in the letter?

VLADECK: I mean, I think what's stunning about this letter is that this is where we are, that the White House is basically throwing down the gauntlet and saying, Congress, we understand that you want to investigate us. We're not having any of it. And good luck trying to actually, you know, get anywhere with your inquiry...


VLADECK: ...While we're providing no witnesses, no documents, no nothing.

SHAPIRO: There's a lot in the letter - some of it political and some of it legal. So let me ask you about one of the legal arguments the White House makes, which is that the entire House of Representatives has to vote on this inquiry in order to make it legitimate. Is that true?

VLADECK: No, it's not true. I mean, the Constitution actually says nothing about the process the House is supposed to follow when it comes to impeachment inquiries other than that it eventually has to approve articles of impeachment before sending the matter to the Senate. There is historical precedent in two of the prior cases involving presidents for that kind of vote. But, Ari, there also plenty of historical precedents of impeachments of federal officers with no such vote.

SHAPIRO: Not necessarily presidents but lower officials in the government.

VLADECK: Exactly so, and so I think that there's a distinction here between historical precedent where Congress was doing it just to do it and what's required. It may be the former. It's certainly not the latter.

SHAPIRO: The letter also makes an argument that Democrats are violating the president's constitutional right. Let me read you an excerpt here. It argues that the president must have, quote, "the right to see all evidence, to present evidence, to call witnesses, to have counsel present at all hearings, to cross-examine all witnesses." The list goes on and on. Fact-check that for us. Are Democrats denying the president those rights? And is the president entitled to them in this sort of an inquiry?

VLADECK: I mean, the second question, I think, is the more important one, which is, you know, in this context, it's not clear that the president is a criminal defendant with due process rights. The whole point of impeachment is that it's not a criminal proceeding and that the House is basically acting more like a grand jury than the actual criminal trial...

SHAPIRO: Gathering facts rather than proving guilt or innocence.

VLADECK: Exactly so. I mean, I do think, Ari, that, you know, the House probably could make a few more accommodations to the president. But that's, again, a matter of legislative grace. That is not a valid basis for refusing to comply with otherwise valid congressional subpoenas and document requests.

SHAPIRO: So if this standoff continues, are there ways for Democrats to pursue their investigation without cooperation from the administration if they're getting totally stonewalled by the White House?

VLADECK: So I think the short answer is yes. I mean, first, obviously, the Democrats can try to round up evidence and information from other where - from other places, from other individuals, from folks who are not, you know - would not comply with a White House directive not to testify. Second, Ari, I think we've seen the Democrats say that they're already thinking about using this kind of obstructionism as its own basis for impeachment, that, you know, whatever we think about the president's substantive conduct, refusing to respect the House's constitutional role in impeachment investigations is its own shortcoming. And third, Ari, there's also, of course, these ongoing disputes that are in the courts, where, I think, this kind of categorical stonewalling by the president and by the White House, really, I don't think is going to be well-received. And so, you know, I think this actually only raises the stakes of where we are and probably puts House and Senate Republicans in a bit of a sticky wicket insofar as they now have to figure out whether they're going to get behind the president refusing to even allow Congress to find out whether he did anything worthy of impeachment.

SHAPIRO: Whether they will support their party or their branch of government. Well, the letter concludes, we hope that you will abandon the current invalid efforts to pursue an impeachment inquiry. Clearly, Democrats are not likely to do that, so where does this go?

VLADECK: Yeah. I mean, I think this letter, Ari, is really meant as much for the president's supporters as it is for Democrats in the House or for the courts. You know, I think where this goes from here is this is just going to either keep escalating or de-escalate depending upon your perspective. This puts, I think, more pressure on the Democrats to actually push this forward. But it also allows the Democrats to really rally behind a narrative that we don't even have to reach a judgment about whether the president engaged in any impeachable conduct on the merits. He has an obligation to help us reach that judgment. By refusing to is the process foul. It's the cover-up. It's that cover-up that's going to get in the way as much as it is going to be any of the underlying conduct that gives rise to this whole, you know, affair.

SHAPIRO: Professor Stephen Vladeck, thanks for talking with us.

VLADECK: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: He teaches constitutional law at the University of Texas School of Law. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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