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Does Trump Have to Comply With the Impeachment Inquiry?

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 20: U.S. President Donald Trump walks toward journalists as he departs the White House for a campaign rally in Pennsylvania May 20, 2019 in Washington, DC. On his way to Montoursville, Pennsylvania, Trump said that Iran does not currently pose a direct threat to the United States. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
By Andrew Leonatti on October 15, 2019 9:00 AM

Most people expected the impeachment inquiry against President Trump underway in the House of Representatives to be a knock-down, drag-out affair.

But even those expectations fell short, as last week the White House announced that it will not cooperate in any form with the "illegitimate" and "dangerous" impeachment inquiry.

In an explosive memo addressed to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, White House Counsel Pat Cipollone said that because "your inquiry lacks any legitimate constitutional foundation, any pretense of fairness, or even the most elementary due process protections, the Executive Branch cannot be expected to participate in it."

What Does the Constitution Say?

One of Cipollone's main arguments was that the full House has yet to take a vote on authorizing the impeachment inquiry. He says that violates Trump's due process rights.

The framers of the U.S. Constitution probably never envisioned a president as combative as Trump. But they were very clear about who controls the process: the House.

  • Article I, Section 2 states that the House "shall have the sole Power of Impeachment." Section 5 then states that the House "may determine the Rules of its Proceedings."
  • Article II, Section 4 states that "The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors."

That means, pushing aside all the partisan noise, the House has the freedom to conduct its inquiry the way it wants to. There are no set rules regarding which committee must conduct the inquiry, and it does not need permission to investigate the executive branch.

The only rule is that a majority of House members must vote to impeach the President.

Is Not Complying "Obstruction"?

So, the House can essentially do what it wants, but does the president have to play along?

There will likely be court battles over the White House's attempts to prevent current and former executive branch employees from testifying before House investigators. It's clear that President Trump thinks hardball is the best approach for now.

But House Democrats are now warning that even not cooperating with the investigation is evidence of obstruction of justice, an impeachable offense.

The Constitution leaves the phrase "high Crimes and Misdemeanors" unclear. Some scholars believe the Constitution is referring to crimes against the state, but that intentional ambiguity certainly leaves room for disagreement.

In these contentious times, it's likely that if President Trump chooses to fight the proceedings, the Supreme Court will have to weigh in.

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