A legal expert explains what’s going on
There’s non-stop news coming out of Washington surrounding President Donald Trump’s phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. In the wake of a whistleblower complaint, Trump confirmed that he asked Zelensky to investigate his political opponent Vice President Joe Biden. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi announced the initiation of impeachment inquiry, and the next day, the White House released the unredacted transcript summary of the call.
So… what’s going on? And how does the impeachment process even work? To find out, we chatted with Barb McQuade, a legal analyst for NBC News and MSNBC and a University of Michigan Law School professor.
Katie Couric: First things first, the transcript summary of Trump’s call with the Ukrainian president was released today. What are the major takeaways so far?
Barb McQuade: I was surprised that the transcript was so incriminating. I actually expected it to be kind of neutral in terms of its language, because most often when you have cases involving extortion or bribery, people are very careful to talk in coded terms or just make reference to prior conversations, saying things like, “You know, that thing that we talked about.” Instead, it’s really quite blatant.
You blatantly see President Zelensky talk about military aide. Trump’s very next line is “I would like you to do us a favor, though.” He talks extensively about investigating Joe Biden. That, to me, sounds like either demanding a bribe or extortion. “You only get this thing that you’re entitled to, if you do me a favor. If you find this dirt, this opposition research for me.” That is a quid for a quo. I’m surprised by how egregious it is.
So there’s that, and there’s also references to Rudy Giuliani and William Barr. With Guiliani. it sounds like he was assisting president Trump in these negotiations, and it sounds like he could be a co-conspirator for any charges of bribery or extortion. The role of Barr is a little less clear. I know Barr himself has denied any involvement, so it may be that Trump was throwing his name out there without telling Barr that he was doing this. But I think it just raises the question to what extent Barr may have been involved in these negotiations.
You’ve pointed out that the Ukrainian matter has broken through with the public in a way that the Russian scandal never seemed to. Why exactly is that?
Because it’s a simple one-act play, whereas the Mueller investigation was an epic novel with lots of tentacles. People didn’t understand all of it — didn’t have the patience, maybe — to follow the whole story, to read the full Mueller report. Whereas this is pretty simple.
We’re giving military aid to Ukraine to protect them against Russia. And yet, despite the fact that our Congress has said we want to give them military aide to protect them from Russia because that’s in the best interest of our national security, he says, “Eh, on one condition: you need to help me with my next election.” I think people understand that in a way it was difficult for them to understand what was going on in the Mueller investigation. It’s a shocking abuse of power. It’s also a shocking lapse in the president’s duty to protect the American people.
So, the impeachment inquiry: there’s so much to talk about and there’s so much to break down. As a legal expert, can you tell us what exactly an impeachment inquiry entails and what we need to know about this process?
Nancy Pelosi has said that she is going to have six separate committees conduct investigations on their own aspects of it. And then ask them to draft, if appropriate, any articles of impeachment. There are three phases here. Oftentimes, when we hear the word impeachment, we think “removal from office.” That’s several steps down the road. All she’s saying is “there’s enough to inquire here. I’m not saying we should vote for impeachment right now; I’m saying we’ve seen enough smoke and I want to know if there’s fire. We’re going to ask six of these committees to conduct investigations.”
I imagine we’ll see them issuing subpoenas for witness testimony and documents. And then based on what they conclude, if they find evidence of high crimes or misdemeanors, she has asked them to draft any potential articles of impeachment, and then those will be presented to the House, which is where impeachment would begin. Then a full vote by the house. But I think we’re still several steps from that. She has just now has said, “It’s enough for an inquiry. Committees go to work, and see what you can put together.”
What do you expect to see? You said the impeachment process is quite long, and we’re early in the process. But what’s going to happen in the immediate future?
If I were involved, the first thing I would want to do is see the full complaint from this whistleblower. We have only seen the surface, and reportings and descriptions of what it says. We need to see the full report — or at least Congress needs to see it. Apparently, it could relate to classified information, so I don’t know if it’s something that can be shared with the public, but it should at least be shared with Congress. Perhaps a redacted version could be shared with the public.
One of the things that the whistleblower says it’s not just one call, it was a series of events. The call itself is quite alarming. But I would like to see the series of events before we decide whether this conduct is impeachable. That would be the first thing that I would see. I would want to see Rudy Giuliani testify. Today we’ve seen some implication that William Barr may have been involved. He denies it, but I’d want to see him under oath and see what he says about the role the Department of Justice has in this. Those are the three steps I say should be taken immediately.
We talked about the difference about what’s going on right now and what happened with Mueller and the Russia investigation. But can you explain how what’s happening with the impeachment inquiry is different from a Special Counsel investigation?
In some ways, now that we’ve been through a Special Counsel investigation and we know that a sitting president cannot be charged with a crime, it seems that this might be a more efficient and effective way to investigate a president. The only remedy for a sitting president is impeachment. So rather than going through a Special Counsel investigation and sharing that information with Congress to see what they’ll do with it, perhaps going straight through a direct investigation on their own is more direct and efficient. If they have subpoena power, they can gather the documents they need and the witnesses they need.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
This interview originally appeared on Medium.com