By David B. Rivkin, Jr., and Elizabeth Price Foley
5 January 2020 in the Wall Street Journal
Give Nancy Pelosi this: She has chutzpah. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell responded Friday on the Senate floor to the House’s refusal to appoint managers and transmit its articles of impeachment against President Trump to the upper chamber. “For now,” Mr. McConnell said, “we are content to continue the ordinary business of the Senate while House Democrats continue to flounder. For now.”
Mrs. Pelosi’s response: “The GOP Senate must immediately proceed in a manner worthy of the Constitution.” Never mind that the hold-up is at her end.
Yet now that Mr. Trump has been impeached, the Senate is constitutionally obliged to address the matter. Neither Mrs. Pelosi’s intransigence nor Senate rules, dating from 1868, that peg the commencement of an impeachment trial to the House’s appointment of impeachment “managers” justify an indefinite delay.
As Mr. McConnell noted, the Constitution’s Framers emphasized the importance of a speedy trial in cases of impeachment. “The procrastinated determination of the charges,” Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist No. 65, would do “injury to the innocent,” work to “the advantage of the guilty,” and sometimes do “detriment to the state, from the prolonged inaction of men whose firm and faithful execution of their duty might have exposed them to the persecution of an intemperate or designing majority in the House.”
Mrs. Pelosi is holding the impeachment articles hostage, she says, to ensure that the Senate holds what she regards as a “fair” trial. Her central demand is that the Senate permit House managers to call witnesses the House didn’t hear from before impeaching the president. Putting aside the rank hypocrisy of this demand, the Constitution provides that “the Senate shall have the sole power to try all impeachments.” The House has no say in how the trial is conducted.
Mr. McConnell appears to believe it is to his advantage to let Mrs. Pelosi fumble about “for now.” But the Constitution obliges the Senate to act at some point. If the House does not relent, the Senate has two options. It could take the position that because the House bears the normal prosecutorial burden of production and persuasion, Mrs. Pelosi’s refusal to engage with the Senate requires the summary dismissal of the articles. Alternatively, the Senate could take a page from the judiciary’s handbook and appoint outside counsel as managers to make the House’s case against Mr. Trump.
If managers are appointed by either the House or the Senate, the Senate should not conduct a trial on the facts. Instead it should dismiss the articles as a matter of law. The House has alleged no impeachable offense, and therefore no evidence can convict Mr. Trump.
The first article charges the president with “abuse of power” in his dealings with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. There are two ways a president can abuse power: by doing something that exceeds his constitutional authority (such as unilaterally imposing a tax) or by failing to carry out a constitutional obligation (refusing to enforce a law). Neither is applicable here.
Mr. Trump had ample constitutional authority to ask Mr. Zelensky to investigate Ukrainian involvement in the alleged Democratic National Committee server hack, the related genesis of the Russia collusion narrative, and Joe and Hunter Biden’s potentially corrupt dealings in Ukraine. The Supreme Court stated in U.S. v. Curtiss-Wright Export Corp. (1936) that the president is the “sole organ of the federal government in the field of international relations,” with exclusive authority to conduct diplomatic relations.
House Democrats don’t dispute this, or claim Mr. Trump’s actions were illegal in themselves. Rather, they allege that he had “corrupt motives” for doing them.
The “corrupt motives” theory is inherently corrosive of democracy. Motives are often mixed, difficult to discern and, like beauty, generally in the eyes of the beholder—which in this case sees through partisan lenses. To Democrats, the transcript of the Trump-Zelensky call demonstrate the desire to harm Democrats; to Republicans, a desire to root out corruption.
Any investigation involving governmental malfeasance can damage the president’s political rivals or benefit allies. But the president has a constitutional duty to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed,” even if his political opponents may be violating them. To bar investigations of the president’s political opponents would effectively hand them a get-out-of-jail-free card and traduce the rule of law. And virtually everything elected officials do serves political ends. If a president’s pursuit of his political interests is impeachable, every president is removable at Congress’s whim.
The House Democrats’ theory will encourage impeachment whenever a President exercises his constitutional authority in a manner offensive to the party controlling the House. The Framers vehemently opposed impeachment for policy disagreements, as legal scholar Michael Gerhardt noted during President Clinton’s impeachment inquiry in 1998. He told the House Judiciary Committee that “one of the most often repeated pronouncements of the framers” was “that impeachment is not designed to address policy differences or opinion.” He referred the committee an “excellent study” by Peter Hoffer and N.E.H. Hull, which warned that “impeachable offenses are not simply political acts obnoxious to the government’s ruling faction.”
The second impeachment article charges Mr. Trump with “obstruction of Congress” for asserting executive privilege in response to subpoenas. But impeachment doesn’t abolish the separation of powers The president has ample constitutional basis to resist congressional demands of documentary and testimonial evidence, particularly when it involves his White House advisers and sensitive national-security issues. This article is not only legally baseless but outrageous, since the House didn’t bother asking a judge to compel White House aides to testify. Instead, Mrs. Pelosi insists Mr. McConnell make it happen.
The Senate must stop the madness. If the House chooses not to pursue its case, the Senate has the authority and the duty to move forward and acquit the president without hearing additional evidence. Both with respect to the timing of the impeachment trial and the actual trial procedures, the Senate must fulfill its constitutional duty as the ultimate check on the House majority’s partisan passions and abuse of its impeachment power.
Mr. Rivkin and Ms. Foley practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington. He served at the Justice Department and the White House Counsel’s Office during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush Administrations. She is a professor of constitutional law at Florida International University College of Law.