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Obstruction As An Article Of Impeachment


The Democrats' case against President Trump is probably going to come down to two big themes. The first is foreign interference. Trump wanted to hold up security assistance for Ukraine in return for investigations he thought would help him in 2020. The second is obstruction - going to talk more about that now with Phil Ewing, who's NPR's election security editor and has been part of our team covering impeachment. Phil, thanks for being with us.

PHIL EWING, BYLINE: Good morning.

SIMON: So many of these stories, of course, necessarily are about Ukraine. But what do members of Congress also see in this question of obstruction?

EWING: Well, one reason they've made it a focus is it's where their impeachment inquiry began. And right now, it feels like 10 million years ago. But this discussion about impeachment started with the findings of the Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller. He documented what Democrats and other critics of the president have called attempts by Trump to obstruct justice and frustrate the Russia investigation, if you remember that from back in the day. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler was among Democrats waving the flag on impeachment before the balance of House leadership got on board and before the Ukraine affair. He said there were grounds for impeachment in the conduct that was uncovered by Mueller.

Earlier this year, the White House said it wasn't going to play ball with congressional investigations on anything, not give witnesses or documents. And so it's important to Democrats because they say the core role of Congress is to oversee the executive branch. And Trump has flouted that. He's violating, in their view, the Constitution. There are also articles related to obstruction in the articles of impeachment drafted both for Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. So there is a precedent there.

SIMON: So we might remind ourselves House Democrats were already frustrated with what many consider to be obstruction when the Ukraine story began to break.

EWING: Yeah. That's exactly right. In fact, they had filed lawsuits to get access to a number of things as part of their earlier investigations. And in some of them, they've actually been winning. A federal judge, late last month, validated Democrats' impeachment inquiry from before the Jerry Nadler phase and underscored that she believed the administration has been, in her words, quote, "openly stonewalling Congress." Democrats have been sounding that note again and again when administration witnesses don't show up after they've been called to testify in the impeachment inquiry. The House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her lieutenants, including Nadler, say they reserve the right to treat those no shows as evidence that Congress, which is a coequal branch under the Constitution, is being obstructed by Trump.

SIMON: If House Democrats do vote to impeach Trump, will it be for obstruction of justice in connection with Mueller or obstruction of Congress in connection with the investigations that Democrats have been overseeing?

EWING: You know, that's a really great question. And impeachment is only a kind of quasi-legal process. A lot of this is political. And just to skip ahead a little bit, impeachment in the House is the equivalent of an indictment. If it happens, Trump would then go on trial in the Senate. And there are enough Republican senators there to acquit him and permit him to keep his office. And Nancy Pelosi, the speaker, and Democrats can see that just as well as anyone else. So the way they draft their articles of impeachment will really depend on what they believe is their best political strategy to hurt the president. If they think they can break off a few wavering Republicans in the Senate, they might file a very closely written impeachment case, one they know is factually airtight and force Republicans to defend that because they can't dispute the evidence they've uncovered. If this is ultimately about messaging, they could go broader. And that's where they could get into the Mueller aspect of this. But this story's only going to get more interesting as we get closer to the prospect of a vote and potentially a trial potentially around Christmas or New Year's.

SIMON: Phil Ewing, NPR's election security editor, thanks so much.

EWING: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Philip Ewing is an election security editor with NPR's Washington Desk. He helps oversee coverage of election security, voting, disinformation, active measures and other issues. Ewing joined the Washington Desk from his previous role as NPR's national security editor, in which he helped direct coverage of the military, intelligence community, counterterrorism, veterans and more. He came to NPR in 2015 from Politico, where he was a Pentagon correspondent and defense editor. Previously, he served as managing editor of, and before that he covered the U.S. Navy for the Military Times newspapers.
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