National Press Club

Legal experts caution House impeachment action, say wait for Mueller

November 16, 2018 | By Kristina Groennings | ksgroennings@gmail.com

Panelists for the National Press Club Newsmaker, "Presidential Jeopardy: Impeachment, Indictment and the 25th Amendment” included Richard Ben-Veniste, Susan Low Bloch, Jennifer Daskal, Moderator Donna Leinwand Leger, Jack Quinn and Jonathan Turley.

Panelists for the National Press Club Newsmaker, "Presidential Jeopardy: Impeachment, Indictment and the 25th Amendment” included Richard Ben-Veniste, Susan Low Bloch, Jennifer Daskal, Moderator Donna Leinwand Leger, Jack Quinn and Jonathan Turley.

Photo/Image: Noel St. John

Democrats taking control of the House of Representatives in January will need to determine the most prudent means to direct their newfound investigative powers.

A panel of distinguished attorneys, moderated by former National Press Club President Donna Leinwand Leger Thursday and organized by Leinwand Leger and Headliners Team member Aaron Cohen, weighed in on what actions would be most effective and legally sound.

Given the high bar of evidence needed for impeachment and the severe consequences of such action, panelists agreed that it would be premature for the House to go that route.

“It’s a very draconian remedy. It in some sense undoes an election,” said Georgetown Law Professor Susan Low Bloch. She recalled her disagreement with the Clinton impeachment proceedings. “I would caution the House again this time, that unless we know more or until we know more, they should not impeach. It damages the institution of the presidency,” Bloch said.

“The Clinton impeachment really cheapened the extraordinary remedy of impeachment. It dumbed it down,” noted Richard Ben-Veniste, a former prosecutor with the Watergate Special Prosecutor’s office. “I believe that Congress should not be in the business of impeaching, other than for the serious high crimes and misdemeanors that were discussed by the framers and are embedded in the Constitution,” he added.

Jonathan Turley, George Washington University Law School professor and lead counsel on the last impeachment trial in the Senate agreed, “I’m not in favor of starting impeachment on the grounds we have now.”

Jack Quinn also noted that pursuing impeachment could come at a high political cost. The former White House counsel to President Clinton said, that while Clinton may have perjured himself, “going down that path was a political disaster, it was monumentally stupid, and they (the Republicans) paid the price for that.”

Bloch added that the framers’ only purpose for providing for impeachment was to hold presidents accountable for serious high crimes and misdemeanors. “It is not a vote of no confidence. It is not a disagreement with how the president is doing things,” she exclaimed.

The panelists urged House members to hold off on initiating any impeachment proceedings until special counsel Robert Mueller concludes his investigation.

Ben-Veniste expects that an indictment from Mueller will come soon. “It appears to me that he’s at a point in his investigation with the cooperation agreements that he has obtained, to act. And if he acts, in connection with the claims of Russian interference in our elections by identifying any aiders and abettors or conspirators with the Russian effort, that will be very important and will inform Congress with their next steps.” He added that the same will be true if he returns an indictment on the subject of obstruction of justice.

Jennifer Daskal concurred. “It is appropriate at this point to, at a minimum, wait and see what Mueller comes up with,” said the American University associate law professor. She added that if there is evidence of obstruction of justice or influencing the election in support of a foreign campaign, that “should be taken very seriously and does rise to the kind of thing where impeachment might be and probably is an appropriate remedy.”

The panelists also expressed concern about the recently appointed acting attorney general’s ability to stifle Mueller’s investigation. While ending the investigation would be “political suicide on the part of the executive branch,” Daskal said that Matthew Whitaker could alter the resources available to the special counsel, demand ongoing reports on the investigation, and take further steps to preclude actions.

While the House is likely to employ widespread subpoena powers to solicit information from the executive branch in the meantime, it should expect to encounter serious road blocks. “It is likely that the White House will attempt to slow walk anything that Congress is doing,” said Ben-Veniste. President Trump’s counsel could dribble out materials, promise things, negotiate and exploit divisions in the committees, and “[a]ll of those things are tried and true methods of slowing down investigations,” he added.

However the House ultimately decides to exercise its investigative powers, the legal experts urged that it should do so with a degree of restraint.

“Right now it’s important that the Congress robustly assert its prerogatives for oversight and investigations, but it’s equally important that it be responsible, sensible, focus on genuinely important matters and not overreach,” Quinn said.

While it is important that the House fulfill its responsibility to check against the executive branch, Ben-Veniste added that “[p]olitically they need to be very careful that they don’t trip over each other, that they organize themselves in a way that they are acting coherently and not vindictively.”