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4 Legal Scholars To Appear Before House Panel's Impeachment Hearing

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

What is the constitutional standard for impeaching a president? And what is - and is what President Trump did with Ukraine the kind of offense that meets that standard? That is the central question of today's impeachment inquiry hearing. This time, the House Judiciary Committee is in the lead. And the witnesses are constitutional scholars.

This next phase was triggered after the House Intelligence Committee released its report yesterday. The report claimed there is, quote, "abundant evidence" that shows Trump abused the power of his office for his own personal benefit. Here's Committee Chair Adam Schiff talking with Steve Inskeep yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ADAM SCHIFF: I don't think there's any question that the uncontested facts show this president solicited a bribe.

MARTIN: So now that question moves to the House Judiciary Committee, which will ultimately decide whether to bring articles of impeachment. Bruce Ackerman is a constitutional law expert and a professor of law and political science at Yale University. He was also the lead witness in the House impeachment hearing against President Clinton. Thank you so much for being with us this morning.

BRUCE ACKERMAN: Hello, Rachel.

MARTIN: Can you just talk to us about the significance of this moment? I mean, you testified before this very committee 21 years ago. Can you give us a sense of the meaning of the inquiry now moving to the House Judiciary Committee?

ACKERMAN: Yes. I think it's terribly important to take two steps back from today's headlines and look forward because the great question - the great danger of this proceeding is whether in 2021 or 2025, when the next president of the United States enters office, we will be looking here and seeing that we have two narrow impeachment proceedings that have been done in the last 25 years within the memory of everyone - or at least a large percentage of the population...

MARTIN: President Clinton's and this one, yes.

ACKERMAN: That's right. In both cases, there was a narrow blunder of serious consequence, which was then covered up and constituted an impeachable offense for sure. However, when the next president comes into power and if he or she is confronting an opposing party in the House or in the House and Senate, they will search through that president's record and find evidence or assert the existence of a blunder in his or her 30 or 40-year career.

MARTIN: So I understand you're afraid of the precedent this might set for future impeachment, using it as a political tool. But I have to say...

ACKERMAN: Yes.

MARTIN: ...Democrats' case is that this is not a narrowly defined blunder. The House Intelligence Committee asserts that this is about the American democracy writ large, that if President Trump is not held accountable that this will undermine our system of checks and balances.

ACKERMAN: They are correct. But rather than only focusing on a single issue, we have to recognize that President Trump's behavior is unprecedented in American history because from the crime that he committed in bribing Stormy Daniels to the violation of the First Amendment in declaring that Muslims coming from majority-Muslim countries cannot become eligible for American citizenship - this is a fundamental violation of the First Amendment.

MARTIN: So are you saying that those issues should be part of articles of impeachment?

ACKERMAN: Completely. Completely. We should have - because what we have here is not a precedent of one serious blunder - and it is of a criminal character, no question about that - but an assault on the entire foundations of the American constitution. Notice, this president has, in dramatic violation of international law, ripped infants and young children from their parents and - which will traumatize them for life.

These are fundamental, serious offenses, one after another. You look at his tweets and you will find others. What the House should do - and, of course, there is the Mueller report, which details another...

MARTIN: So you are arguing for a far broader scope...

ACKERMAN: Completely.

MARTIN: ...In terms of any potential articles of impeachment. If I could ask...

ACKERMAN: We should have a broad-based articles of impeachment because then, whenever it come - whatever the judgment is - and I'm not going to be in a crystal ball mode here. Whatever the judgment is, then in 2025 or 2029 when we have this easily predictable situation in which the House is opposed to the president - it could be a Democrat or a Republican, I haven't the slightest idea. I am talking about the foundations of the American constitution. We're not going to have another effort to say, aha, here is a very serious mistake that you made in your career. And you covered it up. And we're going to get you. And we're going to have another...

MARTIN: OK.

ACKERMAN: ...Year of this kind of struggle, which will then lead to further, further demoralization and alienation...

MARTIN: OK.

ACKERMAN: ...Of the American people. The crucial thing...

MARTIN: Bruce Ackerman, I'm afraid we have to leave...

ACKERMAN: Yes.

MARTIN: Bruce Ackerman is a constitutional law expert and professor of law at Yale University. We appreciated his time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.