Expert Pitch

House Democrats draw insights from past for current articles of impeachment, Oregon State expert says

Oregon State University, College of Engineering

Christopher Nichols, an associate professor of history and Director of the Center for the Humanities at Oregon State University, is available to comment about the articles of impeachment announced today by House Democratic leaders against President Donald Trump.

Nichols has these initial thoughts:

“December 10, 2019 will go down as an historic day. Two articles of impeachment were proposed by the House Judiciary Committee and they are likely to be voted on and passed by the House, moving forward with the third ever impeachment of a U.S. president. Though it is highly unlikely the president will be impeached and removed by the Senate, which would require 20 Republicans to shift sides, the current articles are quite persuasive. 

“These articles are informed by the insights of the Clinton and Nixon processes, which resulted in only two to three articles that centered on very similar broad themes wrapped around concise examples. In the Trump impeachment, House Democrats have narrowly crafted their language to focus on “abuse of power” and “obstruction of Congress,” two cases they argue have been amply established through recent testimony, documents, and the July 25, 2019 Trump-Zelensky Ukraine call. 

“In my view as an historian, the articles fit with the central aims of the Constitution’s impeachment clause and focus on the Congress’s crucial role to investigate and hold the executive accountable. Indeed, they fit closely with Alexander Hamilton's notion that impeachment centers on the "misconduct of public men," and the sorts of offenses it should regulate stem "from the abuse or violation of some public trust." These articles are clearly designed along those lines; they aim to make the most straightforward case regarding President Trump’s violations of public trust.

“Politically and historically this seems to be the safest path -- but is it the best bet to find a few wavering Republicans in the Senate to vote in favor? These articles do not represent the strongest overall case, as suggested by weeks of testimony and the Muller Report. Surprisingly absent is more about national security and back channel diplomacy; so, too, we do not find articles derived from the detailed examples of obstruction in the Muller Report. Thus these two articles do not attempt the heavier lift of the political-legal hurdles required to establish the cases for “high crimes” regarding bribery and extortion in terms of Ukraine, or obstruction of justice (or possibly perjury) in the Muller Report investigation. Messaging on bribery as well as obstruction of justice in recent weeks has suggested the promise and also possible pitfalls of an emphasis on these complex (albeit compelling) areas.  

“What is clear with the release of the two articles of impeachment is that the Democrats have chosen to focus the Senate impeachment trial on the president’s course of conduct and on grounds they believe they have the best possible case to make both in Congress and in the court of public opinion.”

Nichols can be reached at christopher.nichols@oregonstate.edu or 541-737-3530.

Oregon State University is equipped with on-campus television and radio studios that can be used by journalists. Live or live-to-tape broadcast television studio interviews can be conducted using Vyvx. For radio, Oregon State’s ISDN phone line provides a broadcast-quality audio feed.

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