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Faculty react to formal impeachment inquiry into President Trump

September 25, 2019

On September 24, 2019, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced that the House will begin a formal impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump over allegations that he pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden. Penn Law faculty provided their commentary on the announcement.


Stephen B. BurbankDavid Berger Professor for the Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

Stephen B. Burbank (Professor Burbank was appointed by the Speaker of the House of Representatives to serve as a member of the National Commission on Judicial Discipline and Removal and was a principal author of its 1993 report).

Many citizens who have watched in horror as President Trump assaulted our institutions, flouted the law, and degraded norms of civil discourse have nonetheless opposed impeachment. Some have done so because they believe that the result of a Senate trial is foreordained given Senate Republicans’ abdication of independence, and that an unsuccessful attempt to remove the President might bolster his chances of reelection. There comes a time when strategic political calculations must yield to principle if pragmatism is not to entail complicity. The perfect may be the enemy of the good, but on occasion it may also be the best defense against evil. The impeachment process is integral to the architecture our founders created for the preservation of democracy. They knew what they were doing. Do we?

Cary Coglianese, Edward B. Shils Professor of Law and Professor of Political Science; Director, Penn Program on Regulation

The deepest, most important principles of constitutional government.

Recent allegations about certain conduct by the president with respect to Ukraine—as well as some facts he has already admitted publicly—appear deeply troubling because they implicate the most fundamental principles of constitutional government. These core principles include:

  • Elected officials, including presidents, must act as public servants; they are obligated to use the powers of their office to serve the public, not merely to advance their own self-interest.
  • Elected officials must observe and respect the rule of law. No one in government, not even a president, is above the law.
  • Elected officials must honor the truth. Officials are not entitled to construct their own facts, and information must be preserved and disclosed when required. 
  • Elected officials must accept core constitutional arrangements. In the United States, this means accepting a system of separation of powers, and recognizing that the very first Article of the Constitution entrusts Congress with vital governmental responsibilities that merit respect. 
  • Elected officials must honor the integrity of the democratic process by observing campaign laws and not encouraging other countries to influence, and thus taint, the pivotal mechanism on which citizens depend for governmental legitimacy and accountability. 

These principles mean that public tax dollars dedicated to foreign aid should be used to keep the public safe and the economy growing, not to secure a politician’s electoral advantage. They mean that individuals who hold or seek a position of public trust should not directly or indirectly ask other countries to investigate their political rivals.  

They also mean that whistleblower complaints which are supposed to be shared with Congress should be shared. After all, if Congress is denied information to which it is entitled, then this constitutional “first branch” of government can no longer even attempt to fulfill its duties.

With the recent allegations implicating all five core principles of constitutional government, no one should be too surprised that the alleged conduct has now prompted the House Speaker to announce an impeachment inquiry. If that inquiry confirms what has been alleged and admitted, the question going forward will be not merely whether to impeach or remove the president. It will be whether, if the president is not impeached or removed, the public will ever again be entitled to expect elected officials to serve the national interest, respect the rule of law, honor the truth, maintain meaningful checks and balances, and take electoral integrity seriously. 

A nation that abandons its core constitutional principles surely no longer can aspire to “establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” What appears ultimately at stake is more than just the future for a single president. It is the future for the United States of America.


Mark Nevitt, Sharswood Fellow

The activation of the impeachment process is an extraordinary step that matches an extraordinary allegation against a sitting President. This is only the fourth time in our 230-year constitutional history that the impeachment process has been initiated - to include Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton.  Speaker Pelosi’s decision virtually guarantees that we will see a House vote on high crimes and misdemeanors before Thanksgiving.