Donald Trump pauses to talk as he leaves a
ceremony with members of law enforcement on the
South Lawn of the White House in Washington,
Thursday, Sept. 26, 2019. The president was given
a plaque of appreciation from America's Sheriffs
and Angel Families.
WASHINGTON — If House
Democrats press ahead with impeachment proceedings
against President Donald Trump, their case will rest in
large part on the claim that he sought a foreign
government's help, with hundreds of millions of dollars
in aid in the balance, to dig up dirt on a political
opponent to boost his reelection campaign.
But, if true, would that
be a crime? The answer might not matter. It doesn't take
a criminal act to impeach a president.
standard of "high crimes and misdemeanors" for
impeachment is vague and open-ended to encompass abuses
of power even if they aren't, strictly speaking,
illegal, legal scholars say.
The controversy centers
on a summertime phone call in which Trump asked the
president of Ukraine to help investigate Democratic
political rival Joe Biden, according to a rough
transcript the White House provided on Wednesday. A
whistleblower's complaint released Thursday alleged a
concerted White House effort to suppress the transcript
of the call and described a shadow campaign of diplomacy
by Trump's personal attorney Rudy Giuliani.
The Justice Department
doesn't think Trump violated any laws in his July 25
conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr
Zelenskiy. Republican Sen. Rick Scott of Florida said,
"I think we ought to go through the process. I
mean, no one has shown me what law has been
But the House
Intelligence Committee chairman, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif.,
described several potential crimes that could have been
committed if Trump withheld "authorized funding of
Congress to use as leverage, if the president were
involved in somehow extorting a foreign nation to dig up
or manufactured dirt on his opponent, if there was an
effort to cover up any of this conduct."
Both Schiff and House
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called Trump's actions a
The Constitution provides
for the impeachment and removal of the president, and
other officers of the government, for "treason,
bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors." The
first two offenses are relatively easy to understand,
but "high crimes and misdemeanors" is hard to
"It's meant to
convey the idea that the person has badly flouted the
terms of office. Even if he didn't commit a criminal
offense, did he do something that constitutes an abuse
of power?" said Corey Brettschneider, a political
science professor at Brown University.
In 1970, then-House
Republican leader Gerald Ford, defined an impeachable
offense as "whatever a majority of the House of
Representatives" would vote for.
Ford's description may
have been technically accurate — it takes a majority
vote in the House to impeach — but many legal scholars
find what Ford said too nakedly political and not in
accord with U.S. history.
On the other hand, the
burden of proof in impeachment is, despite the term
"high crimes," lower than the standard in
criminal cases, which is beyond a reasonable doubt.
Defenders of the
president in past impeachments typically made the
argument that the House shouldn't impeach unless the
president has committed a crime, said Frank Bowman III,
a University of Missouri law professor and author of
"A History of Impeachment for the Age of
"The argument has a
lot of resonance with people. It seems almost
commonsensically right," but it has not been the
case in more than 600 years of English and American law,
Bowman said Trump's
actions illustrate his point. "You don't impeach
the guy because he violated a fairly technical election
statute. You impeach him because he extorted a foreign
country into giving him political help," he said.
In the impeachment of
President Bill Clinton, Republicans who controlled the
House impeached Clinton on the charges of obstructing
justice and lying to a grand jury in connection with his
affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. But when
the Senate held a trial on those charges, 10 Republicans
joined Democrats to acquit Clinton on one count and five
Republicans voted to acquit on the other.
succeeded in convincing a majority of the country that
their pursuit of Clinton was not partisan or that the
misconduct he was accused of, essentially lying about an
affair, was serious enough to warrant his removal from
By contrast, in 1974,
President Richard Nixon resigned after the House
Judiciary Committee voted for three articles of
impeachment against him for obstruction of justice,
abuse of power and contempt of Congress. Congressional
Republicans, who had largely supported Nixon in the
early days of the Watergate investigation, made clear
they would not stand by him after the release of
recordings revealed his role in trying to cover up the
break-in at the Democratic Party's headquarters that
sparked the scandal.
At this point, it seems
far-fetched to think that the impeachment of Trump in
the Democratic-controlled House would lead to his
removal by a two-thirds vote of the Republican-led
Senate. That would require 20 Republican senators to
vote to oust him — an unlikely prospect, crime or no
the White House and DOJ learned about the whistleblower
WASHINGTON — The White
House and the Justice Department learned about a CIA
officer's concerns about President Donald Trump
around the same time the individual filed a
whistleblower complaint that is now at the center of
an impeachment inquiry, according to a U.S. official
and another person familiar with the matter.
official initially filed a complaint about Trump's
dealings with Ukraine with the CIA, which then
alerted the White House and Justice. On Aug. 12, the
intelligence official raised another flag, this time
with the intelligence community's inspector general,
a process that granted the individual more legal
During that time, the
inspector general's complaint, which centered on
Trump's dealings with Ukraine, remained private. But
information about the whistleblower was already
making its way through the administration: On Aug.
14, White House counsel John Eisenberg and a CIA
official alerted the head of DOJ's national security
division about the original complaint to the CIA.
John Demers, who
leads the national security division, went to the
White House the next day to review materials
associated with the call. He then alerted people
within the Justice Department, but it was unclear
specifically who he told.
In the following
weeks, Demers had discussions with other Justice
Department officials about how to handle the CIA
complaint, according to the person familiar with the
matter. It was during that period that the Justice
Department also received a notification from the
intelligence community's inspector general about a
The timeline raises
questions about how the White House and the Justice
Department handled the complaint. The administration
initially blocked Congress from viewing the
complaint, citing presidential privilege, and only
released a redacted version of the report to
lawmakers this week after the impeachment inquiry
intelligence committee released the complaint on
Thursday. The nine-page letter details a July 25
phone call in which Trump presses Ukraine's leader
to help investigate baseless corruption accusations
against Democratic rival Joe Biden. The complaint
also alleges that the White House sought to
"lock down" details of the call by moving
it onto a secure, classified computer system.
The complaint also
details extensive interactions between Rudy Giuliani,
Trump's personal attorney, and Ukrainian officials.
The person familiar
with the matter, as well as another person with
knowledge of the case, confirmed that the
whistleblower was a CIA officer.
The Associated Press
is publishing information about the whistleblower's
background because the person's credibility is
central to the impeachment inquiry into the
president. The New York Times first reported that
the individual was a CIA officer.
The U.S. official and
the two people familiar with the matter spoke to the
AP on the condition of anonymity because they were
not authorized to speak publicly.
attorney, Mark Zaid, said publishing details about
the individual places the person in a dangerous
situation, personally and professionally. The CIA
referred questions to the inspector general.