Political science, history faculty weigh in on impeachment trial

Vanguard Graphic| Brooke Elward
Clockwise from top left, John Baesler, Stewart French, Robert Lane and Julie Keil discuss the impeachment of Donald Trump. Courtesy Photos | University Communications

The House of Representatives impeached President Donald Trump last month, but do you know what it means? SVSU’s own experts weigh in on what happened and what comes next.

1. What is the first article of impeachment?

“(Trump) is accused of illegally withholding military aid to Ukraine, money Congress had already appropriated for that specific purpose, in order to pressure Ukraine to announce an investigation into flimsy charges that President Obama’s Vice President Joe Biden had abused his power,” said John Baesler, the history department chairman.

Baesler said Biden’s son, Hunter, was a board member for the Ukraine energy company Burisma. He said Trump had suggested Biden “used his office to protect the company against corruption charges,” which there is no evidence of, according to former prosecutor general of Ukraine, Yuriy Lutsenko, other Ukranian officials, the Obama administration and PolitiFact.

At the time Trump made the claim against Biden, the former Vice President was a leading Democrat contender against Trump for the 2020 election. As such, the impeachment charged that Trump used his office to blackmail Ukraine into investigating to politically damage Biden’s campaign, Baesler said.

2. What is the second article of impeachment?

The second charge states that Trump issued a “blanket order to all of his subordinates to defy Congressional subpoenas, orders to testify in the impeachment hearings,” Baesler said. In turn, this obstructed Congress’ constitutional procedures.

3. How do Democrats view the impeachment?

Julie Keil, a political science professor, said Democrats generally see the situation as the president having wide authority in terms of foreign policy. In this case, she said, the money for Ukraine was voted on, and Trump does not have the authority to hold it up.

“(Trump) only did it to pressure Ukraine to support an investigation of Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, to gain an advantage in the election,” she said. “He has then obstructed justice to avoid being found out.”

4. How do Republicans view the impeachment?

As for the Republican perspective, Keil said the general consensus is that the president has wide authority in foreign policy, and there is “no real evidence of a holdup of funds.” Additionally, some argue that Joe Biden is the “bad actor” by putting pressure on Ukraine to not investigate the charges.

“If there is no pressure on Ukraine by the president, witnesses and evidence don’t need to be produced,” Keil said. “Alternatively, on the obstruction of justice charge, there may have been some pressure by the president, but it doesn’t rise to the level of an impeachable offense.”

5. What is the Senate’s role in impeachment?

Now that Trump has been impeached, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has to forward the articles of impeachment to the Senate to trigger a trial, Baesler said. As of Jan. 12, she has recently said she will do so some time this week, according to The Wall Street Journal.

“So far, Speaker Pelosi has refused to do so, which is a first in the history of impeachment, because Senate Majority Leader McConnell has announced that he wants to have a quick trial,” Beasler said.

Once the Senate receives the articles, the Senate will act as the jury and vote whether to remove the president, Baesler said.

“A two-thirds majority is necessary to remove him,” he said. “This way, both chambers of the U.S. Congress had their say in the process.”

6. Why should I care?

Baesler said students should “pay close attention to the impeachment trial and draw their own conclusions.”

“In the final analysis, the question is: Is the president above the law or not?, which I will rephrase slightly like this: Is the American president a king, or the first servant of the people the way the Founding Fathers imagined it?” he said. “After his resignation, President Nixon said in a television interview, ‘If the president does it, it’s not illegal.’ Is that so? I cannot think of a more consequential question when it comes to what kind of society America is.”

Students should have a vested interest in the impeachment process because it affects them personally, Keil said.

“Whoever runs the country is critically important for (students) and their families,” she said. “In order to be an informed voter, they need to keep track of what’s happening, not just hear the partisan soundbites that are filled with false or misleading information.”

Stewart French, an associate professor of political science, said students should care about anything the government does.

“Our republic only survives if we remain engaged and informed about what our elected officials are up to,” he said. “There are a lot of serious problems facing the U.S. and the world, and to simply not pay attention isn’t a luxury we have anymore. … You simply don’t get to refuse to cooperate. To do so would break down our government and set a dangerous precedent for future presidents.”

7. How can I keep myself informed about the Trump impeachment?

Keil suggested that students take their news from various sources, even sources from other countries, such as the UK-based BBC.

“Try to find a middle ground,” she said. “This is remarkably hard to do today, by the way. Try to ignore Twitter and Facebook — they are horrible sources of reliable news.”

French also recommended students draw information from multiple credible sources, ignoring sites that might offer misinformation or material based on recently searched content.

“Identify people who have experience and have been demonstrably right about events in the past,” he said. “Look at who they link to, build up a go-to information base to find out what’s going on. Dig deep for the information — you have to want it in order to be informed. No one is going to do it for you. It’s your democracy. How badly do you want to keep it?”

8. When else have presidents been impeached?

Baesler said presidential abuses of power were outlined in the Declaration of Independence. The Founding Fathers borrowed the term from English common law to provide an “emergency brake in dire times, only to be used when absolutely necessary,” Baesler said.

Because of this, the House of Representatives has only voted on articles of impeachment four times: Andrew Johnson in 1868, Richard Nixon in 1974, Bill Clinton in 1998 and Donald Trump in 2019.

“Never has the Senate voted to remove a president from office, although they would have done so in the case of Nixon,” Baesler said. “So, this happens very rarely, as the Founding Fathers wanted.”

9. How does the Trump impeachment compare to past impeachments?

Robert Lane, a political science professor, said the current impeachment is unique compared to those of Nixon and Clinton.

“Congress is split — the House is controlled by the Democrats and the Senate by the Republicans,” Lane said. “For Nixon, Democrats controlled both. For Clinton, Republicans controlled both. Hence, the political rancor and contentiousness this time is unprecedented.”

French explained that Trump’s impeachment also differs from previous impeachments due to the process itself.

“This will be the third impeachment trial in U.S. history, and the Republicans in the Senate have no intention of following any of the proceedings they themselves used in the past,” French said. “This is why Speaker Pelosi is holding up the articles until the Senate votes on the process of the trial. She is worried the Republicans will try and fast track it without holding a proper trial.”

10. What will happen next?

Once the trial begins, the Senate will set rules for proceedings, as there are no standing rules for the process, Baesler said.

“The issue right now is whether the Senate will hold additional hearings and call additional witnesses, such as former National Security Advisor John Bolton, who just recently announced he would honor a Congressional subpoena,” he said.

While Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wants to minimize political fallout through a quick process, Senate Democrats want additional witnesses to be heard, Baesler said.

“Since the House vote on impeachment, new evidence has emerged that shows President Trump personally ordering military aid to Ukraine be frozen,” he said. “McConnell wants both the House and President Trump’s lawyers to make their respective cases and then immediately move to a vote on removal from office. This is most likely what will happen once the Senate has received the Articles of Impeachment.”

Keil added that problems will arise from concluding a trial quickly, mainly in terms of information disclosure.

“The problem is, without some of the information and witnesses being called, the whole story is not out,” she said. “That is why McConnell wants a swift hearing — to avoid that information being disclosed.”

Because of the situation with Iran and gridlock between the Democrat and Republican parties, the impeachment process is taking up a lot of time, Keil said.

“Without some major, new information about the president, the Senate will never vote to remove (Trump),” she said.

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