In light of Wednesday's vote in the U.S. Senate to acquit President Donald Trump of a pair of impeachment charges, former U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards said Thursday that voters might reasonably wonder whether it's possible for there to be such a thing as a fair, bipartisan impeachment process.
There's a danger, Edwards said, that impeachment could become nothing more than a political tool rather than a check on runaway presidential power. But Edwards pointed to the floor speech given Wednesday by Sen. Mitt Romney, a Utah Republican. In his remarks, Romney, who was the only Republican to break with his party on the issue, said his conscience and his oath to God demanded that he vote to convict. Edwards called the speech one of the most principled statements he's heard in Congress in years.
"That gives me hope, regardless of your views on what the Senate should or should not have done," Edwards said.
Edwards, a Democrat, and former U.S. Rep. Alan Steelman, a Republican, spoke Thursday afternoon at Baylor University during a panel discussion on the history of impeachment. Edwards was in Congress during the 1998 impeachment of President Bill Clinton and served as a congressional aide during the Watergate impeachment hearings. Steelman was in Congress during the Watergate hearings. The two former congressmen discussed the similarities and differences between Trump's impeachment proceedings and those against Clinton and President Richard Nixon, as well as the 1868 impeachment of President Andrew Johnson.
Steelman said many Americans are under the misapprehension that an impeachment trial is, or at least ought to be, a court proceeding in which senators serve as unbiased jurors who aren't swayed by their partisan interests. The oath senators swore at the beginning of Trump's Senate trial — in which they pledge to "do impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws" — isn't a reflection of how the process actually works, he said.
"We all saw that didn't happen," he said.
Another detail about impeachment law that causes confusion, not only among members of the public but also among members of Congress, is exactly what conduct is impeachable, said Rory Ryan, a Baylor law professor. The Constitution says only that "bribery, treason or other high crimes and misdemeanors" are impeachable, but it doesn't define what kinds of conduct meet that definition.
It's reasonable, but incorrect, to assume that the phrase "high crimes and misdemeanors" means that for a president's conduct to be impeachable, it must be a crime as we understand the term today, Ryan said. There's a wide range of conduct that, though not criminal, would obviously be impeachable, he said.
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Ryan gave the hypothetical example of a president issuing a pardon to every inmate in federal prison just weeks before an election, and strongly implying that they'd be sent back to prison if they didn't vote for him or her. Though the Constitution grants the president the authority to pardon any federal inmate he or she sees fit, such a scheme would obviously be corrupt and the framers would have recognized it as impeachable, he said.
Edwards noted that, while the Constitution gives the Senate the authority to remove a president from office, it doesn't say that senators must vote to do so, even if they think the president is guilty of the conduct of which they're accused. Unlike a criminal trial, impeachment isn't about punishing a criminal, he said. It's about protecting American democracy in cases where the president presents an ongoing threat to the country. He pointed to the Clinton impeachment as an example. While Clinton's extramarital affairs were morally wrong, Edwards argued that Clinton didn't pose an ongoing threat to the country.
Steelman prefaced his remarks by saying he didn't vote for Trump in 2016 and didn't plan to in November, and he thought the House proved its case against him. But Steelman said Trump's conduct didn't warrant removal from office. Clinton's also didn't meet that threshold, Steelman said, but Nixon's obviously did.
"Andrew Johnson, I think, met the standard, as well," Steelman said. "Obviously, I was not there at the time."