Prof. Bowman in NY Times on impeachment for obstruction

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Adam Liptak, the distinguished Supreme Court reporter for the New York Times, has an article out today discussing whether, as a matter of historical precedent, obstruction of legal processes can be an impeachable offense. He is kind enough to quote Professor Bowman extensively. The link is here.

Prof. Bowman in SLATE debate on impeachment

In addition to syndicating Professor Bowman’s article from this blog on the Mueller report (link here), the good folks at Slate were kind enough to invite him to participate in an online discussion/debate about whether impeachment is now likely or desirable in the wake of Mueller’s work. The link to the debate is here.

The Mueller Report

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By Frank Bowman

This is how it’s done. In the endless, degrading cacophony of the Trump era, in which the “tweet storm,” the “flame war,” the sneering insult, and the facile certainty of cable punditry have become the customary form of legal and political discourse, I had almost forgotten what the language of the law sounds like. But there it is in the 448 pages of the Mueller report
— logical, cautious, painstaking, measured, dry, yet inexorably compelling. One may quibble about details, but taken as a whole, Mueller’s product is an exemplar of the prosecutor’s craft and a powerful reminder of why a Justice Department imbued with norms of independence and professionalism is an essential counterweight to both presidential overreach and partisan hysteria.

The legal craftsmanship of the report is also an unanswerable refutation of the endlessly repeated canard that the Mueller investigation was a baseless partisan “witch hunt” by a hostile “deep state.”

In one sense, of course, the report is the work of the “deep state,” if by that foolish term one means the career professionals of American law and government. If some of those professionals are hostile to Trump and Trumpism, it is only because their lives are based on values — the dogged pursuit of truth, a commitment to fairness and due process, respect for the law, support of constitutional government — that Trump openly flouts.

Nonetheless, Trump should thank his lucky stars that Mueller’s team was composed of such old-fashioned folks. Had they indeed been the “thirteen angry Democrats” of Trump’s splenetic imagination, persons of the disposition and caliber of, say, Devin Nunes or Lindsey Graham, but of the opposite political valence, the resultant report would surely have been very different. As it is, the professional values and institutional norms by which good prosecutors live produced a report exonerating Trump of actual crime in relation to Russian election interference and withholding judgment on the legal question of obstruction.

Trump and his enablers are, of course, claiming vindication. But the caution and restraint of Mueller’s style cannot obscure the facts he meticulously reports. And those amount to a devastating portrait of a man by conduct, character, and temperament unfit for the office of president.

The section of the report on Russian election interference does clear Trump and his campaign of conspiring with the Russian government to interfere in the 2016 election. It nonetheless unequivocally affirms that the Russians did interfere. And it depicts Trump campaign operatives, including members of the Trump family, who were aware of the possibility that Russia was trying to intervene to help Trump by hacking and leaking material damaging Clinton, but saw no problem with such Russian meddling and would happily have conspired in it given the chance.

The reality of Russian intervention and the dangerous, if perhaps not quite provably illegal, proximity of Trump intimates to it frames the question of Trump’s obstruction quite differently than his defenders would like. Despite Trump’s endless denials, the Russians did meddle. As a matter of national security, that required investigation. Likewise, Trump associates and family did have troubling contacts with Russian emissaries. That, too, required investigation. Given the facts, both those long publicly known and others now laid out in Mueller’s report, investigation of neither point could, except in the mind of a willfully blind partisan, amount to a “witch hunt.”

Moreover, a truly independent inquiry into Russian electoral interference represented a political threat, or at least grave embarrassment, to Trump, because it raised the possibility that his victory was tainted by the assistance of a hostile foreign power. In addition, by no later than early 2017, Trump knew that his family and associates had, at the very least, come dangerously close to illegal entanglements with Russian representatives. Thus, Trump had powerful motives to quash the Russia investigation.

The crime of obstruction of justice depends on proof of two basic points — first, actions that obstruct or impede an investigation, and second, corrupt motive. Although a president may lawfully limit or even halt investigations for reasons genuinely related to the national interest, doing so to advance one’s partisan political prospects or to protect oneself or one’s family or friends from criminal exposure or personal embarrassment is to act corruptly.

The second volume of Mueller’s report lays out eleven different incidents or sequences of events that might amount to obstruction — from Trump’s efforts to convince FBI Director James Comey to lay off the investigation of Gen. Michael Flynn, to his repeated attempts to stop or limit the Mueller investigation, to his public and private efforts to induce witnesses Flynn, Manafort, and Cohen not to testify or to hew to Trump’s preferred view of reality.

Space precludes a blow-by-blow analysis of each of these categories, but Mueller’s conclusions — though guardedly, even opaquely, phrased — are evident and damning. He concludes that on multiple occasions Trump engaged in behavior that either did, or was intended to, obstruct or impede criminal investigations. As to some of the enumerated categories, Mueller concludes that, even if obstructive conduct occurred, there was insufficient evidence of “corrupt” motive. But as to at least five sequences of events, Mueller unmistakably believes that there is persuasive evidence of both obstructive conduct and corrupt motive. These included repeated efforts to remove special counsel Mueller; an attempt through Cory Lewandowski to induce Attorney General Sessions to limit the scope of the Mueller probe to future Russian interference in elections; a brazen attempt to convince White House Counsel Don McGahn to lie about the fact that Trump had ordered him to arrange the firing of Mueller; Trump’s efforts to influence the cooperation and testimony of Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort; and Trump’s efforts to induce Michael Cohen not to cooperate or to shade his testimony in Trump’s favor.

Mueller’s conclusions are unmistakable despite his careful refusal to go the last step and say plainly that Trump obstructed justice. If there were any doubt on the point, it is removed by the report’s inclusion of a devastatingly thorough legal rebuttal of Attorney General Barr’s apparent view that a President cannot commit obstruction by stopping or limiting a criminal investigation. The only reason to include such an argument is if Mueller concluded that, on the facts, the president violated the law. Otherwise, the legal question is moot and a legal craftsman like Mueller would never have included such surplusage.

In the end, of course, whether a president can or cannot technically commit the crime of obstruction is itself a moot point. As I have argued many times, Bob Mueller was never going to defy DOJ policy and seek indictment of a sitting president. As to the president, therefore, Mueller’s job from the beginning was to determine the facts and present them to Congress and the public in order that a political judgment about the president’s fitness for office could be made — whether through the impeachment process or at the polls.

The picture of the current president painstakingly etched in the Mueller report is of a man with three dominant characteristics.

First, his narcissism overwhelms all other considerations. Even a more balanced and self-aware person would have found the Russia inquiry politically and personally troublesome. But one cannot escape the feeling (to which Mueller obliquely alludes) that a primary factor in Trump’s desperate efforts to squash the investigation was the fragility of his ego — a manic determination that the epic achievement of his election not be tarnished by even a hint that forces other than Trump played a role.

Second, Trump believes that, having been elected, the powers of government are to be wielded for his personal and political benefit and the law exists only as a tool to serve his ends. No institution, no law, no set of traditional norms, no professional standard, certainly no moral consideration deserves any deference if it stands in the way of his immediate wishes.

Third, the thread running through the entire report is Trump’s essential falsity. Mueller confirms that Trump not only lies constantly as part of his public act, but does so privately among his advisers and intimates and he expects others to lie for him on command. Among the most revealing vignettes is Trump’s effort to convince Don McGahn to lie about the fact that Trump ordered him to secure Mueller’s firing. McGahn, to his credit refused and showed Trump his notes documenting the order. Trump exploded in astonishment that, “Lawyers don’t take notes…. I’ve had a lot of great lawyers, like Roy Cohn. He did not take notes.” That a subordinate might have personal integrity and be unprepared to sacrifice it on Trump’s command had seemingly never occurred to him.

One other curious theme recurs throughout the report as a kind of counterpoint to Trump’s lawlessness. Even though Trump repeatedly ordered people to crush or divert or hobble the Russia investigation, over and over they refused to comply, either to his face or simply by failing to carry out his directives. Revealingly, those who resisted told Mueller that they did so because they didn’t want to be responsible for another “Saturday Night Massacre,” or they didn’t want to be another Robert Bork.

This is heartening in a sense. The example of Watergate seems to have restrained at least some Trump subordinates and helped buttress, at least for awhile, the tottering citadel of the rule of law. But the Mueller report is about yesterday’s White House. Those with historical memory, and perhaps more imbued with personal integrity and professional values, are largely gone. Quit in disillusionment. Or purged because they refused to bend to Trump’s lawless whims. In considering what to do about Donald Trump, Congress should ponder that they now confront a Trump unchanged in his essence but increasingly surrounded by aides who may prove unwilling to provide even the modest restraint on his worst impulses documented in Mueller’s report.

Whether Donald Trump violated a particular federal obstruction statute is in the end a peripheral matter. The fundamental lesson of the Mueller report is simply that he is fundamentally unfit for office and presents a persistent danger to the integrity of the American constitutional order. That is the question that Congress and the country must now address.

Trump and Pardon Power

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Tyler Brown’s article, “The Court Can’t Even Handle Me Right Now: The Arpaio Pardon and Its Effect on the Scope of Presidential Pardons,” published in the Pepperdine Law Review, examines the effect the President Trump’s pardon of Joe Arpaio will likely have on the law and Trump’s political standing:

The Constitution grants the president the power to pardon individuals for offenses against the United States. Courts have interpreted this power broadly, and the American public has historically accepted its use, even in the face of several controversial pardons over the last five decades. However, after President Trump pardoned Joe Arpaio—a former Arizona sheriff who was held in criminal contempt of court for continuing to illegally detain suspected undocumented immigrants—scholars, activists, and political figures questioned whether this pardon was unconstitutional. This Comment discusses the Court’s interpretation of the pardoning power, controversial pardons in modern history, and the details of the Arpaio pardon and the public’s response. After comparing the Arpaio pardon to previous pardons, analyzing constitutional arguments, and laying out the legal and political impact the pardon may have on the Trump administration, this Comment ultimately concludes that the Arpaio pardon is constitutionally suspect, but the current Court is not likely to make any changes to the pardoning power’s broad interpretation.

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Tax Returns and a Legitimate Purpose

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The Ways and Means Committee of the United States House of Representatives has asked that the I.R.S. turn over President Trump’s tax returns and related information from the past six years. The Committee’s Chairman, Rep. Richard Neal, notes that the reason for his request is  to examine audit procedures for a president.

William S. Consovoy, retained by President Trump to represent him on this matter, responded to the request with a letter sent to the U.S. Treasury Department, advising the I.R.S. not to turn over the returns. He argues in that letter that President Trump has a privacy interest in his tax returns, which should be protected, and that the Ways and Means Committee has no legitimate reason for requesting  them. He claims that the reasons put forth by Neal are disingenuous and meant to hide his true motivation, which is purely political.

The congressional authority to request tax returns is codified in 26 U.S.C. section 6103(f), which reads in part:

“Upon written request from the chairman of the Committee on Ways and Means of the House of Representatives, the chairman of the Committee on Finance of the Senate, or the chairman of the Joint Committee on Taxation, the Secretary shall furnish such committee with any return or return information specified in such request . . . .”

Emphasis is added here to demonstrate that, generally, the I.R.S. does not have the discretion to refuse a request for tax records from Congress. However, as Ross Garber points out in a piece written for Politico, the Supreme Court has held that Congress exceeds its constitutional authority when requesting documents without a legitimate legislative purpose. He predicts a lengthy legal battle to determine whether such a legitimate reason actually exists, which Congress will ultimately  lose by reason of lack of legal authority or eventual mootness. Still, all is not lost. Garber points out that if the returns are not ultimately turned  over, then they could become a future article of  impeachment, for failure to turn over tax returns for improper reasons.

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Green to Continue the Push for Impeachment

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Representative Al Green has expressed his intention to resubmit articles of impeachment this year. He introduced articles twice last year, citing Trump’s bigotry and racism as evidence of his lack of integrity and unfitness for office, and, forcing a vote on the floor, summoned the support of 60 democrats. He is not dissuaded by Attorney General Barr’s summary of Mueller’s report, and the lack of evidence of conspiracy between the President and the Russian government. He maintains that Trump is unfit for office because of his discriminatory decisions and statements.

Green’s position is similar, if more narrow, to that which has been put forth by Professor Bowman who presents  “a view of impeachment as an essential tool in the case of a president who consistently violates legal and behavioral norms essential to the preservation of American constitutional order.”

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The Mueller Report

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By Frank Bowman

The villagers are despondent. Helpless against the ogre in the white castle looming over their town, they hired Sir Robert, peerless paladin of republican virtue, and sent him forth against the monster. After a two-year quest, every hint and rumor of which was followed breathlessly by the quaking townspeople, Sir Robert has returned. But he comes not with the ogre’s severed head hanging from his saddle bow, but with a long parchment that says, “The creature in the white palace is indeed a bad fellow, certainly not better and indeed somewhat worse than you knew him to be when you selected him to live there. What you do about that is now up to you.”

Upon reading this, the scales fell from the villagers’ eyes, and Sir Robert stood before them revealed, not as a knight in glittering plate armor with pennon flying from his lance, but as what he had been all along, a grave, punctilious, honest lawyer who had done what he was tasked to do, neither more nor less. And then, in their disillusionment, those villagers most wroth against the ogre wailed and rent their garments and covered their heads with ashes.

Robert Mueller was never going to save us from Donald Trump. He was certainly never going to indict a sitting President of the United States. Indeed, given the narrow scope of Mueller’s charge — to investigate “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump” and any “matters that arose or may arise from the investigation” — it was always extraordinarily unlikely that he would find that Trump or high-ranking members of his presidential campaign “colluded” — or to use the better and more precise legal term, “conspired” — with the Russian government to fix the 2016 election.

The improbability of success on “collusion” narrowly construed had nothing to do with the inherent morality of Trump and his handlers. After all, Trump chose as his campaign manager Paul Manafort, a man so sleazy that, even before his recent convictions, he had been cast out of American politics to practice his black arts on behalf of the third world thugs and aspiring autocrats on the fringes of the former Soviet empire. And apart from thoroughly corrupt newcomers like Manafort and lightweight wanna-be grifters like Rick Gates, Trump’s campaign was a family affair. Which meant that a chip off the old block like Donald Jr. was empowered to gleefully accept meetings with obviously dodgy Russian intermediaries offering obviously stolen dirt on candidate Hillary Clinton.

But however much the Trump menage might have been willing to conspire with the Russians, it has always seemed improbable in the last degree that, during the campaign, the Russians ever got close enough to Trump that the interaction could be fairly categorized as a criminal conspiracy. A prosecutable conspiracy requires proof that two or more persons agree to carry out a criminal objective.

The first problem with proving that Trump conspired in the legal sense with the Russians is identifying the criminal objective of the conspiracy. The second and equally daunting obstacle is proving an agreement to commit the object crime.

What we know of Russian activities in 2016 establishes that they did two basic things to help Trump and hurt Clinton — they certainly conducted a social media disinformation campaign that favored Trump and they quite probably hacked Clinton campaign emails and fed them to the media through Wikileaks.

As to the first, one might construe the millions of rubles expended on the Russian social media effort as an illegal foreign campaign contribution, but I am aware of no evidence suggesting that the Trump campaign had any more advance knowledge of the Russian efforts on this score than anyone else. Indeed, there is no reason to think the Russians would have said anything to Trump’s people about their work in this realm. They didn’t need Trump’s help to do what they were doing and telling Trump — that famously indiscreet man — would have risked disclosure which would have nullified the whole point of the exercise.

As for the Clinton email leak, the original hack (whoever performed it) would have been illegal, but it is altogether unclear whether anything that happened thereafter was criminal. Anti-Trump legal experts have poured out barrels of internet ink arguing that for a foreign government or entity to give and an American candidate to accept negative information about an electoral opponent is a campaign finance violation. I’ve always found this contention improbable, both as a matter of law and as a matter of simple common sense.

Suppose, as was surely the case, that the British favored Hillary Clinton in the last election, and that, as was apparently not the case, they had evidence Donald Trump had long been a Russian intelligence asset. Can anyone seriously contend that it would be a crime under American law for the Clinton campaign to ask the British about their knowledge of Trump’s allegiances or indeed for the British to respond to the query? Even if one accepts the somewhat strained argument that information is a thing of value regulated by campaign finance law, no plausible reading of the First Amendment would permit criminalization of the disclosure of information so vital to the operation of the democratic process.

In any case, I strongly suspect that when the details of Mueller’s investigation finally emerge, they will reveal no evidence of prior communication between Trump’s people and the Russians about the Clinton email hack or the feed of the material to Wikileaks. An expression of interest in the emails by Donald Jr. at the Trump Tower meeting, yes. Loud public encouragement of the release from Trump, yes. Some advance word given to Roger Stone by Julian Assange (not the Russians) of the impending release of the material by Wikileaks, perhaps. But no Trump-Russian cooperation in either obtaining or disseminating the material.

All of which makes perfect sense. The Russians perennially want to undermine their great geopolitical rival, the United States. They disliked Hillary Clinton for her past posture on matters Russian, and perceived her as the more obviously competent — and thus undesirable — candidate in the 2016 election. Therefore, they were happy to attack her to weaken her support among the American public and to cause general disruption of American civic life. But, and this is a huge but, while it is now sometimes hard to remember, before November 8, 2016, no sensible person — not the Russians and probably not even Trump himself — thought the American public would freely choose to elect such a transparently incompetent blowhard.

It was therefore always vanishingly improbable that the Russians would connect themselves directly and provably to the campaign of a weak, imprudent, huckster, thus exposing Russia to the wrath of what the Russians surely assumed to be the incoming Clinton administration. Without such connections, there can have been no criminal conspiracy.

The situation with respect to obstruction of justice is different. It appears from Attorney General Barr’s letter that Mueller did find evidence from which one might conclude that Trump obstructed justice, but elected not to opine on whether that crime was committed. We don’t yet know whether he did so because the evidence on both sides of the question was in rough equipoise, or because he concluded that the law is ambiguous, or because he decided that, since he could not under DOJ policy indict a president, he should not offer an affirmative opinion that the president committed a felony.

My best guess is that he intended that congress and the public should weigh the evidence arrive at its own conclusions. The Barr letter is a fairly transparent effort to frustrate that expectation by offering a preemptive and exonerating legal judgment carrying the imprimatur of the Attorney General. It is also a peculiar animal because it effectively concedes that Trump did obstruct the Mueller investigation in fact, but nonetheless concludes that Trump did not commit the crime of obstruction primarily because Mueller did not find that Trump “was involved in an underlying crime related to Russian election interference.”

For what it’s worth, I think, Mr. Barr is wrong on the law. His heavy reliance on the absence of proof that Trump himself committed a crime connected with Russia is certainly misplaced. One can undoubtedly obstruct justice by interfering with an investigation of the crimes of someone else. Moreover, the law is clear that one can obstruct an investigation that ultimately does not yield proof of criminal wrongdoing by anyone. Barr’s contrary conclusion is only explainable as intellectually dishonest special pleading, or as the product of an intellectually honest, but constitutionally suspect, embrace of the so-called unitary executive view of the presidency pursuant to which the president as the personal embodiment of the executive branch cannot obstruct justice by stopping investigation of anyone else.

But none of the foregoing is at all surprising. The chances of a smoking gun tying Trump to a provable electoral conspiracy with the Russians were always tiny. And any obstruction case was almost certainly going to turn on debatable views of presidential power. This does not mean that the Mueller report itself, once revealed, will be of no consequence. One suspects it will reveal a wealth of discreditable detail about Trump and his clan. Still, whatever is in it will likely serve only to confirm his opponents in their disdain, even as his fans continue to hail it as exoneration.

For me, the most important question about the Mueller report is the issues it will leave unaddressed. For example, I have long thought that the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia during the election were a mere secondary issue. The real question about Russia is why Trump has become a reliable, even obsequious, apologist for Vladimir Putin and has, so far as he has been able against the resistance of Congress and the intelligence and defense establishments, regularly aligned himself with Russian interests. That requires explanation, and I strongly suspect Mueller did not read his charge as extending to an inquiry that would demand a deep historical analysis of Trump’s personal and business history running many years into the past. If the mystery of Trump’s open affinity for Putin is to be solved, congressional Democrats will have to solve it.

Which brings me to the three main lessons of the Mueller investigation.

The first is that Trump’s opponents have always invested far too much hope in Robert Mueller. He was asked to investigate one quite narrow segment of Trump’s affairs. He seems to have done so, vigorously, professionally, and dispassionately. But he was never going to be Trump’s Ken Starr, peering into every cranny of Trump’s life before and after the election for the silver bullet that would bring down a president. Mueller lacked the powers the old independent counsel statute gave Starr, and happily I think, he lacks the zealotry that propelled Starr to the sordid fizzle of the Clinton impeachment. He has provided a salutary example of what the law, and the prosecutors who serve it, are supposed to do.

Second, the very narrowness of the Mueller inquiry should remind us that the problem with Donald Trump has never been one misdeed or misjudgment, or even one extended disgraceful episode. Nor is it the things we do not know about him (unless he really is compromised by Russia). The already-obvious challenge he presents to American democracy is his endless, staggering, mind-numbing array of completely public assaults on communal decency, competent governance, and bedrock constitutional norms. We don’t need Bob Mueller to tell us what the problem is. And almost nothing Mueller was ever likely to discover would have added very much to our understanding of that problem.

Bob Mueller’s legal investigation was never going to solve our national political crisis. And by not trying to solve it, by simply doing the job the constitution and the laws asked him to do, he has paid the American system of government and his fellow citizens the great compliment of trusting us to solve it for ourselves. The truth is that both Democrats and Republicans have been hiding behind Bob Mueller for a long time. The shallow, vicious, children of Trump’s media and congressional base have transformed him and the rest of the honorable men and women of federal law enforcement into an imaginary traitorous “Deep State.” Among Democrats, “Wait for Mueller” has been the mantra of those either too cautious or too calculating to move boldly against a generational threat.

Now we are going to find out what 21st century American democracy is made of. Will congressional Democrats have the fortitude to investigate those things that remain to be investigated — and do it both thoroughly and fairly? Will Republicans honor the example of their predecessors during Watergate and cooperate in seeking the truth? While waiting for its investigations to conclude, will Congress as a body defend its prerogatives and the constitutional balance against a president who plainly respects neither? And will it have the courage, once all investigations are complete, to act both on what they find and what is already staring them in the face? And even if our elected representatives fail us, will we employ the Founders’ primary remedy against an overreaching or incompetent executive and vote to turn him out of the White House?

Bob Mueller is an old-fashioned man who has placed an old-fashioned faith in the regular processes of law and in our national commitment to intelligent self-government. I hope we are worthy of it.

Barr Releases Summary of Mueller’s Report

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Attorney General William Barr has released a four-page summary of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report. In it he announced that Mueller did not find sufficient evidence to establish the President Trump’s campaign conspired with Russian groups to manipulate the results of the 2016 election. Additionally, he writes that Mueller did not make a recommendation as to whether the President should be charged with obstruction of justice, but rather presented evidence on both sides of the issue and deferred to the Attorney General. Bar and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein have decided not to pursue indictment of the President on that charge. Barr notes that he intends to release as much of the report as will not violate Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 6(e), governing the release of grand jury information. After the release of Mueller’s findings, the House of Representatives will have to decide whether they believe the evidence is sufficient for impeachment.

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Documents Flooding the House

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A large number of the 81 individuals subject to the House Judiciary Committee’s “friendly subpoenas,” requests for documents sent to President Trump’s organization, campaign team, transition team, inaugural committee, and his personal associates for documents having to do with the committee’s probe into the allegations of Trump’s obstruction of justice, have already complied and sent documents. These documents could be used to lay the foundation for impeachment proceedings in the House; however, recent remarks by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, seem to indicate that said impeachment proceedings my never occur.

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