Skip Navigation

Would an impeachment of President Trump damage democracy?

Jonathan Turley, legal scholar at The George Washington University, had arrived at the National Press Club for his Dec. 4 guest appearance on The Kalb Report directly after testifying before the U.S. House of Representatives Judicial Committee hearing on the impeachment of President Trump and told the audience that the impeachment process is moving too quickly and threatens to “tear the country apart.”

He was part of a three-member panel that included Nina Totenberg, NPR’s legal affairs correspondent, and Pete Williams, NBC News justice correspondent who joined moderator Marvin Kalb to talk about whether the nation is headed into a constitutional crisis fueled by hyper-partisan politics and--at the time of The Kalb Report broadcast—the prospect of a presidential impeachment.

This broadcast, which marked the 100th program in the Kalb Report series that began in September 1994, was planned well before knowing that Turley would be making headlines all day while testifying before Congress. And since its airing, two articles of impeachment against President Trump were introduced on Dec. 10.

Turley, who had been called to testify as a witness by the minority members of the House committee, said he took exception to the “fast and narrow” approach the impeachment inquiry had been taking. “It is not that President Trump cannot be impeached for abuse of power. I have always said that he can.

Moderator Marvin Kalb (left) with Jonathan Turley.

“I’ve also always said that he can be impeached for a quid pro quo in Ukraine. I think those are unassailable facts. My problem is how this is being done,” he said.

Citing the Nixon impeachment as an example, Turley said that President Trump’s failure to turn over witnesses and documents gets to an issue raised in Nixon’s case: Can you impeach a president who has gone to court?

President Nixon fought in the courts the House Judiciary Committee’s subpoena to provide full audio recordings of Oval Office conversations and other information. Turley said it was the very weight of the Supreme Court ruling against Nixon ordering him to comply that began to turn the tide of opinion toward impeachment.

The Trump administration also has turned to the courts. But Turley said that in his opinion, moving forward with impeachment without waiting for a ruling in President Trump’s case renders the process both premature and destined to fail in the Senate.

“I think that’s a serious problem because you do have an obstruction of justice case if you get a court order and the president doesn’t obey it,” he said. He added that failure to wait for the courts could leave half the country behind.”

All three guests agreed that the current state of national affairs and divisiveness does not represent a constitutional crisis because the Constitution was written by men who were aware that a democratic government would face this kind of stress.

Pete Williams and Nina Totenberg

“The answer is no, we are not in a constitutional crisis,” Williams said. “None of the things that have happened so far is extra-constitutional. In fact, what happened [in the impeachment inquiry] today is following the text of the Constitution.”

The Constitution “wasn’t just written for times like this. It was written in times like this. It was built to survive, and it has,” Turley said.

And when one examines the impeachment threats throughout America’s history, one sees that they were political crises, not constitutional crises, Totenberg said.

But she added that with the Republicans and Democrats now far more ideologically deadlocked than they were at either the time of Watergate and the Nixon impeachment or of the Clinton impeachment, breaking the political crisis becomes more difficult.

Waiting for the courts to say the Trump administration must comply with congressional subpoenas could take a year, Totenberg and Williams agreed.

In response to Kalb’s comment that Republicans insist President Trump has done nothing illegal, Totenberg said, “You don’t have to do something illegal to be impeached. It has to be a high crime and misdemeanor.”

The same actions would be legal when done by the average citizen but impeachable if done by a president, Totenberg said.

Kalb asked: “Would it be impeachable [for the president] to do something with American foreign policy that is not in the national interest, that is not in the interest of your ally, but in your own political interest?”

Said Williams, “Suppose the president said, ‘I want more than one wife. So, I am going to Saudi Arabia and I’ll run the presidency from there and keep in touch by tweet, and I’ll get back to you.’ That’s clearly not illegal, but no one would say it is not an impeachable offense.”

Watch the entire Kalb Report program “We the People …” HERE:

The Kalb Report is a joint project of the National Press Club’s Journalism Institute, University of Maryland Global Campus, the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs, Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center, the Gaylord College of Journalism at the University of Oklahoma, and the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. It is underwritten by a grant from Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, and Maryland Public Television serves as the presenting station for national distribution.