White House To Release Transcript Of Trump-Zelenskiy Conversation
NOEL KING, HOST:
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said yesterday that President Trump's actions have left Democrats in the House no choice but to start an impeachment inquiry.
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NANCY PELOSI: The intelligence community inspector general formally notified the Congress that the administration was forbidding him from turning over a whistleblower complaint. This is a violation of law.
KING: We don't know what's in the complaint, exactly. We don't know who the whistleblower is. What we do know is that the complaint involved a phone call between President Trump and Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy. The White House says it will release a transcript of the conversation between the two presidents. But what will that actually do? Kimberly Wehle wrote the book "How To Read The Constitution And Why," and she's in the studio with us now. Good morning.
KIMBERLY WEHLE: Good morning, Noel.
KING: OK. Let's say President Trump goes ahead and releases this transcript. We don't know anything about the transcript. What does that mean? What does that give us?
WEHLE: That gives us one piece of information. But, really, the issue here is the whistleblower complaint. My understanding is it's not just about that one phone call. There are - there's other information in the complaint. We also know that Rudy Giuliani participated in communications with the Ukrainians regarding some of these issues. So the problem really here, as Nancy Pelosi indicated, is that the law mandates that the whistleblower complaint be turned over to Congress if the inspector general determines it contains a matter of urgent concern. That inspector general is a Trump appointee and made that determination, and that information is being withheld from the Congress and from the American people. And it's of something of deep interest, I think, to our democratic process and our institutions and our norms going forward.
KING: Isn't the inspector general independent? Isn't he meant to be independent? And if so, why can't he just give the complaint - the whistleblower complaint - to Congress?
WEHLE: Well, we - the way the statute works, he gives it to the acting director of national intelligence. And it's that person's determination, or obligation I should say, to turn it over to the Congress. So, you know, we - in these moments, you could argue that we need to have heroes or people that will maybe bend the rules a little bit. But it's important for we - us all to follow the rule of law because that adheres and that preserves the overall institutions. And that's really what the issue is in this moment. It's not Donald Trump personally. It's the office of the presidency becoming unaccountable to anyone.
KING: Let me ask you about the rule of law. Is this act, withholding the complaint, the whistleblower's complaint from Congress, is that an illegal act?
WEHLE: Well, as I said, there's a statute that mandates it be turned over. It's unconditional. The White House has kind of a, I think, fairly weak theoretical argument for why that doesn't get turned over. But the rest of us don't get to decide which laws we need to comply with and which we don't. Normally, if there's a question on the constitutionality of the statute, that would go to a court. It wouldn't just be a standoff in this moment. People not following the rules within government is really problematic because it's a slippery slope and eventually we have a boundless government. And the framers of the Constitution understood, if that happens, the people that get hurt are regular people that don't have the kind of power that Donald Trump has in this moment.
KING: There is the question of what's illegal, then there's the question of what's unethical. What do each of them mean for impeachment?
WEHLE: Well, impeachment - the standard is high crimes and misdemeanors. It does not require that there actually be a crime. In this instance, the issue is that whether or not Mr. Trump actually went to the Ukrainians and asked for opposition research on the Biden family. That would not only be an abuse of his office because we're not talking about engaging in foreign policy that maybe Mr. Biden did under Obama, engaging in foreign policy on behalf of the nation. This would be out of his own self-interest. It would also be asking for information or background dirt on a regular citizen, Mr. Hunter Biden, who is not a political opponent.
The second piece is if that was done with some kind of threat to withhold aid to Ukraine, that could amount to extortion under common law, so that would be a crime. The impeachment process itself, though, is really a political one. It's not a legal one. The House and the Senate can do what they think is appropriate today in this moment.
KING: You've argued that many Americans have not read the Constitution, don't know it well enough. In times like these, why is it important for us to read the Constitution?
WEHLE: The Constitution is a job description for our leaders. It's how we control we the people, and the book talks about how the levers of power work. If we allow the presidency to run through stop signs and red lights without any tickets, then the red lights and the stop signs no longer exist, and that office becomes too powerful. So it's understanding why we need to go to the polls, why we need to be on top of this and understand it for ourselves and not listen to how other people explain it. Learn for yourself how the Constitution works, and then we can make sure that we have our own government for ourselves.
KING: Kimberly Wehle teaches constitutional law at the University of Baltimore. Thanks so much.
WEHLE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.