The impeachment inquiry into Donald Trump’s dangling of military aid in exchange for political favors was met with obfuscation this week. US Ambassador to Ukraine, Gordon Sondalnd was blocked from testifying before the House Intelligence Committee shortly before he was scheduled to appear. This obstruction was swiftly followed by a letter from White House counsel, Pat Cipollone, to House Democrats, that no cooperation with the ‘’illegal inquiry’’ would be forthcoming. His tactic was hardly surprising and came as public support for impeachment reached record highs. Cipoollone’s argument against the legitimacy of the inquiry rests on questionable legal legs.
The first issue Cipollone raises in his letter justifying non-participation is that inquiry is invalid and violates due process. He argues the impeachment move is unprecedented and that Trump is being treated differently than any other American accused of wrongdoing. Cippolone’s first charge is patently untrue. The Constitution lays out the framework for impeachment and the first order of business is a Congressional investigation into alleged offenses. Additionally, in the impeachment proceedings against Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, an investigation of the facts preceded a vote before the House of Representatives.
The due process argument is similarly baseless. When ‘’loss of life, liberty or property’’ is at stake, the defendant has the right to call witnesses, confront his accuser, have defense counsel present, etc. No such loss is at risk in this case. The worst that can happen to Trump is removal from office. As such, there are no Constitutional grounds to invoke these rights. Even assuming Trump were afforded the rights guaranteed to criminal defendants, they would not be relevant at this juncture. To suggest that those hypothetical rights have been violated would be equal to suggesting a criminal defendant’s rights had been violated in the event he were not presented with all evidence against him prior to an indictment.
Cipollone’s second line of reasoning against cooperation with the inquiry is entirely political. He states in his letter that the ‘’invalid impeachment inquiry’’ is an attempt to undue the lawful results of the 2016 Presidential election and influence the upcoming 2020 race. This idea is better suited as a talking point for Trump and his GOP backers in the House and Senate. It has no basis in law and certainly isn’t grounds for ignoring lawfully issued subpoenas. The argument also implies any political bias against President Trump would somehow negate an investigation into any potential malfeasance. He argues the entire spectacle is a partisan charade without acknowledging the severity of the allegations against the president.
His final point of rationale sounds like he’s parroting Trump in formal legalese. Cipollone writes: ‘’Your current effort is founded on a completely appropriate phone call between President Trump and President Zelensky of Ukraine.’’ He notes Trump’s ‘’extraordinary step of declassifying and publicly releasing the record of the call’’ presents as evidence that the President did nothing wrong. Trump has admitted to asking Zelensky to investigate political rival, Joe Biden. That he withheld critical Congressionally approved military aid is a matter of public record. Special Envoy, Kurt Volker’s testimony last week revealed that a White House visit was contingent upon the requested investigation into Biden. Yet his lawyer seems to be arguing that no quid pro quo existed, because no one ever used the phrase.
Trump has often acted with indifference towards law and order in his time as President. His policies have been subjected to a myriad of legal challenges. He has publicly broken norms that rise to the level of illegality on numerous occasions. The letter from Cipollone, presumably at Trump’s behest, rises to a new level. He is in essence raising his alternative view of the facts at hand and presenting them as reasons why he cannot be investigated. The argument’s raised in Cipollone’s letter are ludicrous and lean into a dangerous precedent. It concludes with an appeal to House Democrats to drop the matter entirely. If they were to acquiesce to the demand it would make it clear to this President and future ones that they are in fact above the law.
Photo by Caleb Perez