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Constitutional Expert Says Move to Impeach Trump Can Proceed Without Derailing FBI’s Criminal Probe

Web ExclusiveDecember 01, 2017
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At least 17 communities around the country are now on record calling for impeachment proceedings against President Trump. On Tuesday, the town of Weston, Massachusetts, joined that list, when residents supported a citizen petition asking the House to assess whether Trump is violating the Constitution. This comes as a nationwide petition for impeachment launched in October by Democratic donor Tom Steyer has topped more than 3 million supporters. But calls for President Trump’s impeachment have been criticized by some Democratic leaders, who say it should come after investigators have concluded their work. We speak with constitutional attorney John Bonifaz, co-founder and director of Free Speech for People.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report, as we turn to the movement to impeach President Donald Trump. In November, a half-dozen Democrats introduced articles of impeachment against Trump, accusing him of obstruction of justice and other offenses. Co-sponsors include Democratic Congressmembers Steve Cohen, Luis Gutiérrez, Al Green, Marcia Fudge, Adriano Espaillat and John Yarmuth.

This comes as a petition for impeachment launched in October by Democratic donor Tom Steyer now has more than 3 million supporters. At least 17 communities around the country are now on record calling for impeachment proceedings against Trump.

On Tuesday, the town of Weston, Massachusetts joined the list, when residents supported a citizen petition asking the House of Representatives to assess whether Trump is violating the Constitution.

For more, we’re joined here in New York by constitutional attorney John Bonifaz. He is co-founder and director of Free Speech for People.

John, welcome back to Democracy Now!

JOHN BONIFAZ: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about this overall movement and why you see impeachment as your way to deal with your dissatisfaction with the president of the United States.

JOHN BONIFAZ: Well, to be clear, what we’re doing here with this impeachment campaign that we launched with RootsAction on the day of the inauguration, because the president had refused to divest from his business holdings all across the world in defiance of the anti-corruption provisions of the Constitution—what we’re doing, Amy, is designed to defend our Constitution and our democracy.

This is not about being dissatisfied about certain policies of the president. This is about the Constitution and the basic fundamental principle in this country that no one is above the law, not even the president of the United States. And he walked into the Oval Office that day already defying the rule of law, already refusing to comply with those two anti-corruption provisions of the Constitution.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain exactly what those two anti-corruption articles of the Constitution are and what he refused to do with his businesses.

JOHN BONIFAZ: So those two anti-corruption provisions are the Foreign Emoluments Clause and the Domestic Emoluments Clause. The Foreign Emoluments Clause makes clear that the president shall not receive, nor any other federal elected official shall not receive, any payments or financial benefits of any kind from any foreign governments. The Domestic Emoluments Clause applies only to the president and says he shall not receive any financial benefits or payments of any kind from the federal government or the state government other than his federal salary.

This is a president who has 111-plus business interests all over the world, many of which involve illegal foreign benefits, foreign government benefits, to him personally, through his company, the Trump Organization, as well as having properties all over the United States that involve state government benefits and the federal government, through the leasing of the Post Office Square in Washington, D.C., that is now the place where the Trump International Hotel resides.

So, what we’re dealing here with is a president who knew, prior to taking the Oval Office, warned by constitutional scholars, that he needed to divest from his business interests in order to comply with those anti-corruption provisions. He refused to, and he is engaged in treating the Oval Office as a profit-making enterprise at the public expense.

AMY GOODMAN: How have things changed since January, when Donald Trump became president?

JOHN BONIFAZ: I think what has happened is we’ve seen a growing list of impeachable offenses that require an impeachment investigation in the U.S. Congress parallel to the Mueller investigation. This is not a question of having to wait and see whether or not the federal criminal investigation that’s proceeding turns up violations of federal criminal law by the president or any of his associates. That’s a separate question.

The question here are crimes against the state. That is what impeachment is about—abuse of power, abuse of public trust, and not only through the violations of the anti-corruption provisions. There is now, of course, evidence of obstruction of justice. There’s evidence of potential conspiracy with the Russian government to interfere with the 2016 elections and violate federal campaign finance laws, among others. There is now evidence of abuse of the pardon power in the pardoning of former Maricopa County Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio. There’s recklessly threatening nuclear war against a foreign nation. There’s misuse of the Justice Department to try to prosecute political adversaries. And there’s the giving aid and comfort to neo-Nazis and white supremacists. All of this—all of this deserves an impeachment investigation in the U.S. House of Representatives.

AMY GOODMAN: So, in response to some Democratic leaders warning against calls for impeachment before Robert Mueller’s investigation has been completed, billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer defended his $20 million ad campaign to impeach President Trump, and blasted his critics, telling The Wall Street Journal, “The Republican nominee wasn’t really a Republican. The person who energized the Democratic Party wasn’t really a Democrat. So, when I hear the Washington establishment tell me, 'Shut the f— up,' I think, well, maybe.”

And on Thursday, he tweeted, “It doesn’t surprise me that the political establishment in Washington, D.C. can’t imagine the idea of the American people having an independent voice. They’re scared of any threat to their control. But it’s important to do what’s right,” said Tom Steyer. I want to play a clip of the ad that has been running on television.

TOM STEYER: He’s brought us to the brink of nuclear war, obstructed justice at the FBI. And in direct violation of the Constitution, he’s taken money from foreign governments and threatened to shut down news organizations that report the truth. If that isn’t a case for impeaching and removing a dangerous president, then what has our government become?

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the billionaire Tom Steyer, who has spent millions on this ad campaign that’s running on television. Can you talk about what he is attempting to do—it’s the Need to Impeach campaign—and whether you’re working with him, John Bonifaz?

JOHN BONIFAZ: Well, we’re in communication with Tom Steyer and his team about collaborating possibly, and we do think what’s important here is to elevate the national conversation. He’s obviously helping to do that. We fully agree with all that he’s saying about the need for this impeachment process to move forward in the House of Representatives. And the more voices that come forward from the American people all over the country is going to help push that forward in Congress.

AMY GOODMAN: So let’s talk about what’s happened this November, these six House Democrats announcing they’ve introduced articles of impeachment against President Trump. This is Congressman Steve Cohen making the announcement on November 15th.

REP. STEVE COHEN: I am proud to stand here with my friend, Congressman Gutiérrez, with other congresspeople who will be here, in announcing that we are introducing articles of impeachment to remove President Trump from office. There will be, I believe, six signatories on the resolution. We have taken this action because of great concern for our country and our Constitution, our national security and our democracy. We believe that President Trump has violated the Constitution, and we’ve introduced five articles of impeachment.

AMY GOODMAN: Again, that’s Congressmember Steve Cohen of Memphis, Tennessee. Joining him, Luis Gutiérrez of Chicago, Marcia Fudge of Ohio, Adriano Espaillat of New York, John Yarmuth of Kentucky and Al Green of Houston, Texas. So, explain what they’re introducing.

JOHN BONIFAZ: Well, they’ve introduced five articles of impeachment, and they’ve done it as a group. And it’s significant because up until now there were two members of Congress, Al Green being one of them, Congressman Al Green from Houston, and Congressman Brad Sherman from Los Angeles, who had introduced articles of impeachment around obstruction of justice. These articles go beyond obstruction of justice, including that, but also the violations of the foreign and domestic emoluments clauses and the president’s continued attacks on freedom of the press and on the independence of the judiciary.

And what’s significant here, Amy, is that these articles have been introduced by members of Congress despite the continued opposition by their own party’s leadership in the Congress. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has made clear that she doesn’t think impeachment should move forward at this time, and yet they are going ahead and moving this forward. And I think they’re asking for other members of Congress to join them, beyond those who already have stepped forward. And we, as Americans, all across the country, should push for an impeachment investigation and should urge our members of Congress to take the same kind of action.

AMY GOODMAN: So, respond to Nancy Pelosi. I mean, what these Democrats are saying is this is not the way to retake the House in 2018, that if you disagree with the president, the way to deal with that is through elections. Explain why you see impeachment as key.

JOHN BONIFAZ: Well, we’re a nonpartisan organization. We’re not involved in the political strategy of any political party. What we are focused on is defending our Constitution. At this particular moment in time, it is not acceptable to say that we will simply kick the can down the road and wait until after an election cycle to lay the groundwork for the impeachment proceedings. They may not happen tomorrow. They may not get started next month. But the fact is, we need to be laying that groundwork and making this call now.

And members of Congress, whether they’re Democratic, Republican, independent or what have you, need to be stepping up to protect and defend the Constitution. That’s the oath they took, in addition to the president taking that oath, to protect, defend and preserve the Constitution.

And the other point on this, Amy, is that Nancy Pelosi has been saying that we don’t have the facts out, we don’t have the Mueller investigation completed. But what they’re really saying is they want other facts out, because we already have the facts out about what this president has done with respect to the emoluments clauses, with respect to obstruction of justice and so many other impeachable offenses.

And when we look at the Mueller investigation, we’re mixing apples and oranges. That’s a criminal investigation, whether or not the president and his associates have committed violations of federal criminal law. The question of impeachment is about abuse of power, abuse of public trust, crimes against the state. And it is just wrong for any member of Congress to suggest that a criminal investigation needs to be completed before an impeachment proceeding can begin.

AMY GOODMAN: One of the people who has gone before the congressional committees is Roger Stone, one of President Trump’s oldest advisers. He issued what appeared to be a veiled threat, warning in August any politician who voted to impeach President Trump would face a violent response.

ROGER STONE: Try to impeach him. Just try it. You will have a spasm of violence in this country, an insurrection like you’ve never seen.

REPORTER: You think?

ROGER STONE: No question.

REPORTER: You think if he got impeached, like the country would go to—

ROGER STONE: Both sides are heavily armed, my friend. Yes, absolutely. This is not 1974. The people will not stand for impeachment. A politician who votes for it would be endangering their own life. There will be violence on both sides. Let me make this clear: I’m not advocating violence, but I am predicting it.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Roger Stone speaking to TMZ. He says there would be a violent response. John Bonifaz?

JOHN BONIFAZ: It’s an outrageous statement, but it also highlights that we cannot allow fear to dictate our response to this lawless president. We cannot say that we’re going to stay on the sidelines here while the Constitution is being shredded, because of that kind of claim that Roger Stone or anyone else might make.

AMY GOODMAN: So, explain how impeachment would work. What would the process look like?

JOHN BONIFAZ: So, the first process involves the House Judiciary Committee taking up the question. The House of Representatives would need to pass a resolution that would advance to the House Judiciary Committee the question of an impeachment investigation or articles of impeachment. You know, Congressman Al Green has said that he wants to go to the floor with a privileged resolution immediately, that will force a vote in the House of Representatives as early as in the next few days in this coming week.

But, you know, beyond that process, the process of having the House Judiciary Committee take up this question would then involve subpoena power, would then involve taking witnesses. This is what happened during the Nixon impeachment proceedings.

I understand when people say, “Well, the Republicans control the House Judiciary Committee. They control the House of Representatives. They control the Senate. Where do we think this process could actually go?” But, you know, there were plenty of people who argued on the day that we launched this campaign, on Inauguration Day, that there was just no way people would be standing up to demand this, and now we see millions of Americans demanding it. Now we see 17 communities on record, and now we see seven members of Congress on record. And the facts continue to build that this president is defying the rule of law. We must place country over party here and stand up for the basic principle that no one is above the law.

AMY GOODMAN: So, if you were arguing for the impeachment in Congress, if you were laying out the case against Trump over this almost a year that he’s been in office—not quite yet—can you lay out the articles of impeachment?

JOHN BONIFAZ: Yes. We would start with the violations of the two anti-corruption provisions of the Constitution: the Foreign Emoluments Clause and the Domestic Emoluments Clause. This president is treating the Oval Office as a profit-making enterprise at the public expense. He’s taking illegal payments and benefits from foreign governments in violation of the Foreign Emoluments Clause, and he’s taking illegal payments from the state governments around the country, as well as from the federal government, in violation of the Domestic Emoluments Clause. That’s point one, or point one and two, if you will, because they’re two different clauses.

Then you have obstruction of justice. This is a president who first demanded loyalty of his former FBI Director James Comey. When he didn’t get that, he went ahead and fired him for not letting go, as he put it, of the Flynn investigation and “this Russia thing,” as he said. That was obstruction of justice. That FBI director was involved in investigating the Russian interference in the 2016 election and its potential connection to the Trump campaign. It led to the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller. And now we know, based on new reporting by The New York Times, that soon after that, the president sought to stop the congressional investigations in the Senate that were going—that continue to go on with respect to that. So obstruction of justice, which was the first article of impeachment against Richard Nixon, would certainly be part of this case.

Then we have the potential conspiracy with the Russian government, potential collusion, to violate federal campaign finance laws and other federal laws and to interfere with our elections. That evidence continues to be built. But it’s also an impeachment question, and the House Judiciary Committee should take that up.

Then we have the abuse of the pardon power. This is a power that is not unlimited by a president. And what the president has done with the pardon of former sheriff, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, is he has essentially undermined the due process rights of the thousands of people who were impacted by Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s illegal actions. This is the sheriff who was found in criminal contempt of court for refusing to stop his illegal practices of detaining people based on the color of their skin. And this president went ahead and used the pardon power in a wrongful way to pardon him.

Then we have the giving aid and comfort to neo-Nazis and white supremacists, not just what the president said after the Charlottesville tragedy, but also his most recent tweets, tweeting out anti-Muslim—inflammatory anti-Muslim videos. This president is giving that aid and comfort to white supremacists.

Then, you know, this president also has engaged in recklessly threatening nuclear war. Now, the fact is that the president is the commander-in-chief. He does not have the power to initiate a war. That is established under the War Powers Clause, despite the fact that we’ve seen violations of it in the past. But this takes it to a whole new scale. This is a president who literally is engaged in recklessly threatening nuclear war against a foreign nation. That reckless and wanton disregard for the established norms and for essentially putting millions of lives at stake, threatening really the world, is an impeachable offense.

And then, finally, most recently, this president has talked about how he would like to see the Justice Department prosecute Hillary Clinton and other political adversaries. This misuse of the Justice Department, or attempted misuse, to prosecute political adversaries would be another impeachable offense worthy of investigation.

AMY GOODMAN: How much support do you have around the country?

JOHN BONIFAZ: Well, I think what we’re seeing from the people both signing our petition at ImpeachDonaldTrumpNow.org and the petition at Need to Impeach that Tom Steyer has initiated is that there are millions already literally on record. Millions of—1.3-plus million on our petition. He has over 3 million, and he’s reaching a lot of people through that ad campaign. And those members of Congress, some of them have said that they’ve been responsive to what they’re hearing among their constituents.

So I think people are ready to stand up, and they need to, because this is an urgent matter. This is not something, again, that we can wait on for something we look at in 2019 or 2020. We need to lay the groundwork now for the call for impeachment proceedings against this president.

AMY GOODMAN: How does Michael Flynn fit into this picture, who today is going to make a plea deal where he admits that he lied to the FBI?

JOHN BONIFAZ: I think the more we see the evidence of the lawlessness of this administration, it will only propel further the call for impeachment proceedings. Again, the Mueller investigation is critical. It’s about federal criminal violations that may have occurred. But that is separate and apart from whether this president is violating his power, abuse of power and abuse of the public trust. And that’s what the impeachment process is for.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you, John Bonifaz, for joining us, constitutional attorney and co-founder and director of Free Speech for People. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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