Pa. Rep. Scanlon says Congress is in ‘uncharted territory’ as impeachment inquiry advances

U.S. Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, D-5th District, holds an 'Impeachment 101' town hall in Philadelphia on Monday, 10/14/19 (Photo courtesy of Office of U.S. Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon)

By Lauren Manelius

PHILADELPHIA — Congress is venturing into “uncharted territory” with the unfolding impeachment of President Donald Trump, U.S. Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, D-5th District, said Monday, as she laid out the groundwork for a proceeding that’s only been employed twice before in the nation’s history.

In an “Impeachment 101” event at a Baptist church in Philadelphia, Scanlon, an attorney and a member of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, told about 50 attendees that the U.S. is in an “unfortunate space” as the House undertakes its impeachment inquiry with an uncooperative White House.

We’ve had these norms, like turning over tax returns, that are suddenly not the norm anymore,” she said. “As someone who believes in civics and ethics and the Constitution and has spent a lifetime being interested in that, you have an ethical obligation here which is above probably the legal obligation.” 

As member of the House Judiciary Committee, Scanlon could play a pivotal role in any eventual impeachment proceeding. She serves on the committee with two other House members from Pennsylvania: Democratic U.S. Rep. Madeleine Dean, of Montgomery County’s 4th District, and Republican U.S. Rep. Guy Reschenthaler, of southwestern Pennsylvania’s 14th District.

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Scanlon, a University of Pennsylvania Law School graduate, was joined at Monday’s event by Penn law professor Jean Galbraith. Together, the two women explained the historical basis for impeachment and how the Founders intended it to be used.

The Founders, they said, wanted a method by which a problematic president could be removed before the expiration of his four-year term. They outlined three main categories of impeachable offenses: bribery, treason, and high crimes and misdemeanors.

While the first two are fairly straightforward, the latter introduces gray areas. Simple misconduct doesn’t qualify — there must be an act such as abuse of public trust or proof of being under foreign obligation, they said. 

Galbraith gave a timeline of what Americans can likely expect to happen: The House’s Democratic majority can introduce articles of impeachment. If those are approved by the full House, the articles go to the Senate, which holds a trial and can vote — or not — to convict the president. 

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In two prior impeachments of Presidents Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, the Senate did not vote to convict. Potential remedies can include removal from office and/or barring Trump from holding future public office.

Impeachment itself does not include criminal punishment, Scanlon explained. Rather, it’s a way of removing from the public sphere an official who has abused power. There can, however, be a subsequent trial based on the information illuminated by the articles of impeachment, she said.

Because of a 2015 rule change by Republicans who then held the House majority, it’s no longer necessary for the entire House to vote to start the impeachment process, Scanlon said. That can start in individual committees, which can issue their own subpoenas.

That provoked a question from the Rev. Brian D. King Sr., the pastor of Ezekiel Baptist Church, which hosted the town hall.

“Do your subpoenas have any teeth?” he asked. “Because it seems like if any one of us did what others are being charged with, federal marshals would be at our house.”

Scanlon said that was difficult to answer because Congress is in “uncharted territory,” with the Trump administration ordering officials not to participate in the House inquiry.

“We’ve been dealing with blanket claims of immunity. We haven’t encountered this before,” she said. 

Typically the U.S. Attorney General’s office enforces Congressional subpoenas, Scanlon explained. But with Attorney General William Barr, a Trump loyalist, at the helm, “that’s not going to happen in this situation,” she said. 

Galbraith added that the most “realistic” option is officials who personally decide to obey their subpoena and ignore the White House’s directive, and/or resign so that they may testify. The former was a move deployed last Friday by Marie Yovanovitch, the former American ambassador to Ukraine, who met with investigators in a closed-door interview.

Only one attendee appeared to be against opening the impeachment process.

When called on, he told the congresswoman he was “very much against” what she was doing, equating the impeachment inquiry to harassment — especially considering what he described as the Mueller Report’s full exoneration of the president from any wrongdoing. 

Scanlon parried, arguing that Mueller’s report included 10 separate instances of obstruction of justice by Trump. And since that report was issued, other arguably impeachable offenses have come to light. She cited the Ukraine phone call and Trump’s pressuring of subpoenaed witnesses like former White House Counsel Don McGahn as examples. 

Audience member Stephen Salgaller went for the long view, asking Scanlon how she thought “the rest of the world, and future historians, [are] going to view America” if Trump evades impeachment.

Scanlon predicted that Trump’s “unprecedented” handling of the presidency would result in tightening of U.S. regulation and policy surrounding the executive branch. She pointed to a bill the House passed in March that would mandate presidential candidates disclose their tax returns. 

“After the Nixon impeachment, we saw a wave of government reform, statutes that were passed,” she said. “And there’s certainly already a lot of discussion in Congress.”

Capital-Star Correspondent Lauren Manelius is a freelance writer and reporter from Lancaster, Pa. 

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