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UAH Professor: Impeachment investigation is a political process, not a legal process

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. -- As the impeachment investigation into President Donald Trump unfolds, the battle has already heated up over the process itself.

President Trump’s lawyers fault Democratic U.S House leaders, arguing the impeachment investigation has ignored the president's due process rights.

White House Counsel Pat Cipollone sent a letter to House Democratic leaders Tuesday arguing the impeachment inquiry is illegitimate in part because it denies President Trump legal due process.

But John Pottenger, chair of the University of Alabama in Huntsville political science department, said impeachment is distinct from a criminal court proceeding and the impeachment stage in the House is focused on the accusation against the President.

If an impeachment measure passes the House, the U.S. Senate would be the place for a trial with related evidence and witness rules, Pottenger said.

“The concerns that today, the President’s due process rights, ability to question witnesses, etc. are not being afforded,” Pottenger said. “It's too early in the process for that to happen if we go by at least the last two impeachment considerations.”

Pottenger said the current impeachment investigation -- focused on whether President Trump violated his oath of office in a discussion with the president of Ukraine where he appeared to ask for an investigation into Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden --  feels different to him than those of Presidents Nixon and Clinton.

“The reason it seems to me dissimilar is because I think there's confusion over what constitutes a legal trial and what constitutes a political trial,” he said.

Pottenger says if there's a major dispute over a president's conduct in office, impeachment is the remedy set out by the constitution.

“Alexander Hamilton in Federalist 65 made it pretty clear that when the people and the people's branch of government, which would be the House, have a major dispute with the executive branch, then that's a political matter, it's not a legal matter,” he said.

President Trump says he should not be impeached, pointing to a strong economy and national security concerns. The letter sent by the White House Counsel argues in part, in its final paragraph, “The President has a country to lead. The American people elected him to do this job, and he remains focused on fulfilling his promises to the American people. He has important work that he must continue on their behalf, both at home and around the world, including continuing strong economic growth, extending historically low levels of unemployment, negotiating trade deals, fixing our broken immigration system, lowering prescription drug prices, and addressing mass shooting violence.”

But Pottenger said the question before the U.S. House and America, raised in the impeachment investigation, is much narrower – the President’s conduct in office.

“We want the economy to thrive, we want the nation to be safe, we want immigration issues dealt with, all of these kinds of things we want,” Pottenger said. “Maybe in different ways, but those are issues that ought to be focused on. But that's the not the issue, that's not the issue in the House.”

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