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Historian Jeffrey Engel Takes Listener Questions On Impeachment Inquiry


This week, the House of Representatives will conduct another round of public hearings and private interviews into President Trump's alleged dealings with Ukraine as they consider whether his conduct merits impeachment. Among the witnesses scheduled to testify publicly are Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, an Ukraine expert at the National Security Council, and Gordon Sondland, the United States ambassador to the European Union.

The first public witness testimonies painted a vivid portrait of a group of longtime diplomats struggling to understand back channels with direct access to the president. And there was new information about that, including a previously unknown call to President Trump that took place in a restaurant.

And that's a lot to digest, so we've been asking listeners to send us questions that you have about any aspect of the impeachment process so we can try to answer them. This week, we've called upon Jeffrey Engel to help us with that. He is the founding director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University, and he's one of the co-authors of "Impeachment: An American history."

Professor Engel, thank you so much for joining us.

JEFFREY ENGEL: Well, it's very good to talk to you.

MARTIN: So, first of all, where are we in the process? - if you could just, you know, help us understand, you know, where we are in this whole impeachment process.

ENGEL: You know, if you want to use a baseball analogy, we're about in the second inning. We're still in the investigative stage. We're still in the stage where the House committees are trying to discover if there was a problem and, if so, what the problem was. So, really, we're still in the acquiring information stage at this point.

MARTIN: So let's get into some of the questions from our listeners. Much like last week, people still have a lot of questions about process. So Kevin Wood (ph) in Arizona, for example, asks, what happens if the people with firsthand knowledge - like John Bolton, like Mick Mulvaney, who's the acting White House chief of staff - he's also the head of the Office of Management and Budget - continue to refuse to testify? Can they somehow be compelled to?

ENGEL: The short answer is we don't know. There's a lot of things that the House can do to try to compel people to testify, even going so far as having the sergeant of arms go and arrest them and throw them into the House jail. They could also file lawsuits. They could also file civil suits. But the truth of the matter is if the Justice Department doesn't want to prosecute some of the lawsuits that the House might bring, they don't have to. And so the big picture here is we don't know what's going to happen because this is setting ourselves up for one of the biggest constitutional crises we've ever had.

You know, I like to go back to the - when the founders created the system of government that we have to remind people that the way you learned about it in school is probably wrong in that you probably learned of it as a separation of powers - three powers separated. What you should've been taught is that's a competition of powers, that each branch of the government is supposed to be competing against each other, trying to grasp more power and trying to take more power away from each other.

MARTIN: Sabine Griff (ph) asks, why on Earth is this going behind closed doors again? I think she's referring to the fact that, while this coming week, there will be both public testimonies again, there are still closed-door depositions taking place. Why is that?

ENGEL: You know, this one I think you don't have to worry about because this one is explained by the fact that they are taking these things behind closed doors for two primary reasons. The first is you always get a better interview when you're doing it behind closed doors because you don't have congresspeople grandstanding for the cameras. The second reason is, you do it behind closed doors in a secure environment in case any national security information leaks out. You don't want that to come out in a public forum.

But the key thing to remember is that all the relevant evidence that is discussed in private is going to, ultimately, be discussed in public. It really just gives a way for both sides to think about how they want to frame questions and ask for information.

In fact, let me give you a great example. You know, one of the most critical moments in the Watergate hearings is when we discovered that President Nixon had a secret taping system, an audio taping system - changed the entire dynamic of the entire scandal. Well, we only found that out because a person was asked a question in private session. And then three days later, once the people who were asking the questions knew the answer, they asked that same person the same question in public so that everybody could see him answer the question, even though they had actually discovered the answer in private. So really, it's all about trying to find out how to get the best information and then, subsequently, how to make the best appearance for the public.

MARTIN: John Flores (ph) wants to know, what happens after the impeachment hearings have been completed? What steps follow?

ENGEL: (Laughter) Well, here's where it's going to get really fun. The Constitution is extraordinarily clear on how to impeach a president and remove their authority. The Constitution is utterly silent about how to remove a president from - physically - the White House. That is to say if the Congress passes a resolution of impeachment, which are then subsequently approved by the Senate and a two-thirds vote, the vice president will then immediately become the president.

What we don't know is what the former president - in this case, former President Trump - will do in that case. You know, he doesn't necessarily have to believe that he needs to honor that order. He could go on Twitter and ask his followers to come - some of them, anyway - to come to Washington to help him out. We really don't know because we've never gone down the road of actually having a president removed from office. We know how to do this in a legal sense, in a technical sense. The real-world practicalities of this have never been tried before.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, what - I assume you've been following this. As a person who's a scholar of this process, what are you looking at as you follow this proceeding?

ENGEL: You know, I'm looking at the bipartisanship or the utter lack thereof. I mean, in the Watergate case, the Democrats who were in charge of the committees - Peter Rodino from New York, in particular - made a big point of saying, everything needs to be bipartisan. We have to get Republican buy-in for everything. And they did because there were also Republicans who were willing to say, you know what? There's a lot of smoke there. Maybe we need to investigate if there's any fire.

So I'm really amazed and looking for, at this point, to see whether there is anyone across either aisle who is willing to move across either aisle to say, I value my constitutional authority and my constitutional duty more than my partisan leanings. We saw that in Watergate. We did not so much see that in Clinton. And I am curious to see if we're going to see it going forward with President Trump.

MARTIN: That is Jeffrey Engel. He's founding director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University and co-author of "Impeachment: An American History." We reached him in Dallas.

Professor Engel, thank you so much for talking with us.

ENGEL: Thank you - good to talk to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.