Is impeachment fair? Our reporters catch you up on where things stand (a chat)

Why We Wrote This

A reader writes: “It is very difficult for me to understand why all of the energy in Congress is being spent on impeachment when there are so many issues in our country to deal with.” Our Washington bureau chief, Congress reporter, and senior Washington writer met to discuss that and other issues related to the inquiry.

Karen Norris/Staff

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 6 Min. )

Linda Feldmann (Washington Bureau Chief, White House correspondent): I’m going to offer a different explanation: The Democrats want to lay down a marker on values and morality. They want to set boundaries on what is acceptable presidential behavior, just as the Republicans did with Bill Clinton and lying about an affair with an intern.

Jessica Mendoza (Congress reporter): Would you say it worked? With Mr. Clinton, I mean. 

Linda: Republicans only made Mr. Clinton more popular by impeaching him, and hurt themselves in the next midterm. But in the long run, Republicans have said to me, the Clinton impeachment was still worth it – they laid down a marker on acceptable presidential behavior and satisfied a key part of the GOP political base, religious conservatives.

Peter Grier (senior Washington reporter): So what about this impeachment process so far? Has it been fair to President Trump? That’s been a main line of GOP defense so far – that it hasn’t been, in their eyes.

Linda Feldmann (Washington Bureau Chief, White House correspondent): Here we go. Good morning, everyone. Hope you had a great weekend! I sure did – went to the World Series champion Nationals’ victory parade. Almost no politics in sight.

Jessica Mendoza (Congress reporter): Happy Monday! That must have been amazing – the pictures looked epic.

Linda: I’ve lived in D.C. 31 years, and it was honestly the most joyous event I have ever attended here.

Jess: If only the city could be as united and happy on weekdays.

Peter Grier (senior Washington writer): But the city is only a reflection of the country. If only the country could be that united and happy.

Linda: Indeed. So ... on to politics and impeachment? This comment I got from a Monitor reader I think reflects the views of a lot of Americans: “It is very difficult for me to understand why all of the energy in Congress is being spent on impeachment when there are so many issues in our country to deal with.”

Jess: I think some members of Congress would push back on that pretty quickly and say there is work going on. Appropriations negotiations are under way, as well as talks on a new trade agreement. But impeachment is definitely sucking up a ton of oxygen.

Peter: That’s true. Just because they’re walking doesn’t mean they can’t chew gum – or write infrastructure bills – at the same time. The problem is there is no consensus on how to fix all those other problems. They would not be solved if impeachment wasn’t happening.

Linda: But they do have to fund the government or else we’ll have another shutdown. But I don’t think we really answered my reader’s question. I think her perception (i.e. “Why are the Democrats doing impeachment instead of ‘doing the people’s business?’ ”) is common and important, and perception is everything. 

Peter: Many Democrats think impeachment is the most important “people’s business.” They consider the president’s behavior to be unconstitutional and dangerous to the republic. As Speaker Nancy Pelosi says, to paraphrase, “he made us do it.” 

Jess: Democratic members say they are pursuing impeachment because they see the president’s call to President Volodymyr Zelenskiy as at least worth investigating. Remember: That July 25 call is at the center of the impeachment inquiry.

Linda: That call, in the Dems’ eyes, reflected a willingness on President Donald Trump’s part to use foreign aid to an ally as a bargaining chip to get that ally to investigate a potential 2020 Democratic nominee and his son. That “quid pro quo” shows a president behaving in a way that, to many Democrats, fits the constitutional definition of an impeachable offense, and that he is unfit to be president.

Jess: So here we are. Democrats are sticking to that message, and hoping that the evidence they’ve gathered, and the upcoming testimonies, will convince enough of the American public to their side. Republicans on the other hand ...

Peter: ... have struggled to defend the president. He does not make it easy for them.

Jess: But Republicans have mostly kept at it. For a while, after the summary of the Trump-Zelenskiy call was released, the strategy was to say there was “no quid pro quo.” 

Peter: It’s not as clear cut that a quid pro quo is as illegal as one might think.

Jess: Why isn’t quid pro quo necessarily against the law? I think the answer could help lead us to what happens next.

Peter: It depends on intent. If President Trump truly believed that investigating Hunter Biden’s ties to Ukraine was a highly important and sensitive national security priority, then withholding aid to force that ... might be OK? But if he just wanted to damage a political rival, then it’s really bad. And remember, things don’t have to be illegal to be impeachable. That’s a political process.

Linda: I agree – the “illegality” of pressuring Ukraine in this way isn’t an automatic fact. And yes, ultimately impeachment is political, though it is informed by the law. Presidents have a ton of leeway in their conduct of foreign policy.

Jess: Which to me seems like the crux of why House Democrats are going through this process. It’s political. They say they need to do this, no matter what the Republican-run Senate ultimately decides. You hear a lot of talk among members about how history is going to look at this moment in time. They say they want to be found on the right side of it. You can read that as sincere conviction or political theater. Or a bit of both. 

Linda: I’m going to offer a different explanation: The Democrats want to lay down a marker on values and morality. They want to set boundaries on what is acceptable presidential behavior, just as the Republicans did with Bill Clinton and lying about an affair with an intern.

Peter: Nancy Pelosi paraphrase again: “You don’t want this behavior to be normalized.”

Jess: Would you say it worked? With Mr. Clinton, I mean. 

Linda: Republicans only made Mr. Clinton more popular by impeaching him, and hurt themselves in the next midterm. But in the long run, Republicans have said to me, the Clinton impeachment was still worth it – they laid down a marker on acceptable presidential behavior and satisfied a key part of the GOP political base, religious conservatives.

Peter: So what about this impeachment process so far? Has it been fair to President Trump? That’s been a main line of GOP defense so far – that it hasn’t been, in their eyes.

Linda: Republicans made a smart political argument about the unfairness of the process, though this process is largely the same as past impeachments, as I understand it. But once articles of impeachment are passed, then the Republicans will have to address the substance of the charges. The process argument will fade.

Jess: Democrats will say that they’ve been incredibly fair, that the situation is different than Clinton’s because national security is involved, that they had always planned to open up the hearings to the public and give the president his due process – but only after the articles of impeachment are passed.

Peter: It’s kind of hard to judge the fairness when compared to past impeachments since there haven’t been many. In terms of the Constitution, the House gets to set its own rules, period.

Linda: When I say the Republicans made a smart argument, I meant in terms of impact on public opinion. They can make that case, whether it’s accurate or not. All I’m saying is this argument about “due process” is a compelling one, even if it’s kind of on shaky ground. 

Jess: Republicans also frame impeachment as “undoing the results of the last election” which goes to their “unfairness” argument.

Linda: Now that argument is easy to refute. 

Peter: Yes, in terms of impeachment being in the Constitution. But what about, “the Democrats have been poised to impeach since 2016?”

Linda: If a president commits an impeachable offense, in the eyes of the House, he can be impeached – again, to make a clear statement about acceptable presidential behavior. It’s not undoing an election, it’s the House exercising its right as laid out in the Constitution. 

Peter: We are in a Constitution stress test. We’re not in a full-blown constitutional crisis, but we’re edging close. With Trump officials simply defying congressional subpoenas, we are in an area of ill-defined law and precedent. It’s a hole in the Constitution, in a way. That may get defined as part of this era. Or it may be a hole that gets widened.

Linda: We should get some input from judges on that before too long. Jess, tell us what it’s been like on the Hill covering all this?

Jess: It’s been pretty intense. There’s always a lot going on: Stakeouts outside the secure room where the depositions are taking place. Press conferences with leadership. Last week was a lot, with the vote on the resolution that authorized public hearings moving forward. A lot of drama in the House. It’ll be a little quieter this week, with most House members in their districts.

Peter: Linda, has the White House felt different at all?

Linda: Just a growing sense of ... “What next?” We don’t have briefings anymore, but POTUS talks to us a lot from the South Lawn – “chopper talk.” He’s animated by the impeachment threat, I think, in both a positive and negative way. We in the press corps have no idea how he will respond to actually being impeached.

Peter: Yeah, one wildcard is the president’s reaction.

Linda: He knows it will fire up his base even more, but he also knows that being only the third president in American history to be impeached doesn’t look so good in the history books.

Peter: Whether he gets so angered by the impeachment process that he says or does something else that blows up the headlines. ...

Linda: Exactly. I’m flying with him on Air Force One on Friday (to Atlanta) so we’ll see if he comes to the back of the plane and talks to us. We always want that, even if it’s off the record.

Jess: Meanwhile, I’ll keep eyes and ears on members in Congress. Most of the spotlight will be on the House for a while longer, but Senate Republicans will be worth listening to as well, especially since it looks like this is headed to trial at some point.

Peter: Let us know what happens, Linda. 

Linda: I’ll bring back some presidential M&M’s. 

For all of our impeachment coverage, check out and bookmark csmonitor.com/impeachment.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Give us your feedback

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

 
of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.