A standing-room-only crowd gathered at the University of Virginia Rotunda on Friday to hear panelists’ thoughts on presidential impeachment.
President Donald Trump in December became the third president in history to be impeached by the House of Representatives; he faces a charge that he abused his presidential power by pressuring Ukraine to investigate Democratic rival Joe Biden ahead of the 2020 election, with military aid to the country as leverage. Trump also is charged with obstructing Congress’ ensuing probe.
This week, articles of impeachment were submitted to the Senate, officially beginning Trump’s congressional trial. An impeached president must be convicted by the Senate in order to be removed from office.
UVa’s Miller Center of Public Affairs, Center for Politics, Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, the Karsh Center at the School of Law and the Jefferson Literary and Debating Society held a pop-up roundtable Friday to offer context into the infrequent impeachment process.
The panel featured Deborah Hellman, a professor of law at UVa; Kyle Kondik, communications director for the Center for Politics; and Chris Lu, former deputy secretary of labor under former President Barack Obama.
While providing some history behind impeachment as it was originally written into the Constitution, Hellman said it is important to consider the words within the definition of impeachable offenses: “treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors.”
“The phrase is asking us to think about what unites treason and bribery, and what unites treason and bribery is offenses that speak to disloyalty,” she said. “It’s about doing something that’s putting your own interests in front of the loyalty you owe to the institution on which you sit.”
Earlier in the panel, Lu stressed that what has been seen so far during Trump’s impeachment is not the whole of the situation and provides, at best, an incomplete picture.
“What we have seen over the past couple months is a thorough but not complete investigation,” he said. “There have been about a dozen witnesses who have testified to the House Intelligence Committee. The vast majority of these are civil servants and yet if you put them in a hierarchy, they fall in a lower tier — the higher-tier officials have not testified.”
However, while unpacking the facts of the case, Lu said it’s important to consider Trump’s motivations for allegedly asking the Ukrainians to look into Joe and Hunter Biden, the latter of whom had served on the board of a Ukrainian natural gas company.
Yes, presidents and public officials have the ability and, in some cases, the duty to look into corruption, Lu said, but the particulars of when and how Trump broached the investigation — allegedly threatening to withhold aid — are important to consider.
“Whether an investigation actually happened was less important than that the investigation was simply announced,” he said. “Yes, at some level, there is a legit move to fight corruption but I would argue that is not what is happening here.”
Hellman struck a similar tone, outlining how Trump’s actions can be argued from both subjective and objective viewpoints.
“On a subjective level, you would have to believe that Trump was asking the Ukrainians to look into it for the good of the country rather than for his personal interest,” she said. “Objectively, is it important for our country for the Ukrainians to look into it such that he should condition those things that the Ukrainians want?”
Kondik spoke to the potential impact of Trump’s impeachment.
Trump has had remarkable stability in his approval ratings, Kondik said, to a degree not seen for any other president except Obama. Trump also has seen a consistent disapproval, he said, and yet a small crossover exists between those who do not approve of Trump but also don’t support impeachment.
“Generally, the public has been a little more supportive of impeachment than not. However, there is a small segment of the public that doesn’t like the president but also doesn’t support impeachment, or at least doesn’t support impeachment and removal,” Kondik said. “Those, to me, are the voters that really matter in a close election, and it is unclear whether impeachment might push them toward the president.”
Toward the end of the panel, an audience member asked whether it would be appropriate to censure Trump instead of impeaching him. Censureship — a formal declaration that an action was wrong without rising to the level of impeachment — was a popular suggestion among Democratic members of Congress during Bill Clinton’s impeachment hearing.
The panelists said they do not believe the Democrats would seriously consider this option. Though it may be a wise move for Republicans to acknowledge the sticky ethical nature of Trump’s actions, Kondik said, it does not seem like something Trump would go along with.
“This president is not known for public self-reflection, to put it mildly, and he’s not someone who is going to apologize publicly,” he said. “Could the president disarm this by just giving a press conference and saying, ‘hey, maybe that call went a little too far’ – but that’s just not what he does. Probably, but the time for that has passed.”