Pelosi Says Congress Should Pass New Laws So Sitting Presidents Can Be Indicted

Sep 20, 2019
Originally published on September 20, 2019 6:10 pm

In an exclusive interview with NPR, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says she has not changed her mind on pursuing impeachment but is ready to change the law to restrain presidential power and make it clear that a sitting president can, in fact, be indicted.

"I do think that we will have to pass some laws that will have clarity for future presidents. [A] president should be indicted, if he's committed a wrongdoing — any president. There is nothing anyplace that says the president should not be indicted," Pelosi told All Things Considered host Ari Shapiro and NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis on Friday. "That's something cooked up by the president's lawyers. That's what that is. But so that people will feel 'OK, well, if he — if he does something wrong, [he] should be able to be indicted.' "

The California Democrat said that while it is Justice Department protocol not to pursue any charges against an incumbent — the reason former special counsel Robert Mueller said he couldn't charge President Trump with a crime no matter the outcome of his report — that should be changed.

"The Founders could never suspect that a president would be so abusive of the Constitution of the United States, that the separation of powers would be irrelevant to him and that he would continue, any president would continue, to withhold facts from the Congress, which are part of the constitutional right of inquiry," Pelosi said.

The constitutional recourse for a lawbreaking president per the Constitution is impeachment. Article II, Section 4 instructs that the president "shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors."

But despite the growing chants among Democrats for an impeachment inquiry in the House, Pelosi has remained reluctant about recourse. She fears it could alienate swing voters ahead of next year's elections and imperil moderate Democrats who were critical to her party's taking back the House last November.

Pelosi did not shift her position on impeachment and said Congress would continue to follow "the facts and the law."

The speaker also said Congress should also clarify the limits of when a president can invoke a national emergency.

"The president should not be able to interpret the National Security Act as something that gives him free rein to do anything he wants by his personal declaration that something is an emergency," she said.

Pressure could be ramped up on Pelosi and Democrats to act further amid reports that Trump had an improper conversation with a foreign leader, which a whistleblower within the intelligence community then reported. The conversation is reported to have been urging Ukraine to look into former Vice President Joe Biden — the current Democratic presidential front-runner who could be Trump's 2020 foe — and his son Hunter Biden. Trump has said the conversation was "totally appropriate."

Pelosi called the whistleblower's complaint "very alarming" and said "this is in a different class in terms of [Trump's] behavior."

"This case has a national security piece to it that is very alarming. It is very alarming because the inspector general is appointed by President Trump." She said the law is clear that the information must be submitted to the intelligence committees in Congress. "Right now they are breaking the law" by not providing that information, she said.

In a statement released after the NPR interview, Pelosi went even further, saying the reports raise "grave, urgent concerns for our national security" and that the president and his administration must conduct "our national security and foreign policy in the best interest of the American people, not the President's personal interest."

"If the President has done what has been alleged," she said, "then he is stepping into a dangerous minefield with serious repercussions for his Administration and our democracy."

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Ridiculous - that's how President Trump is describing allegations that he had improper conversations with another foreign leader. They're reportedly at the heart of a whistleblower complaint from someone in the intelligence community. That complaint and the acting director of national intelligence's refusal to share it with Congress has resulted in a standoff between the executive and legislative branches of government.

President Trump says there's nothing wrong with how he talks to other world leaders during a news conference with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison today.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I've had conversations with many leaders. They're always appropriate. I think Scott can tell you they're always appropriate - at the highest level, always appropriate. And anything I do, I fight for this country. I fight so strongly for this country. It's just another political hack job.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi doesn't see these accusations as a political hack job. I sat down with her this morning in a conference room just off her office along with NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis, who begins this part of our conversation.

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SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: I'm sure you're aware of the reports of a whistleblower raising questions about actions the president took. His personal attorney Rudy Giuliani said he spoke to the government of the Ukraine asking to investigate the Biden family. Just this morning, President Trump said, quote, "someone ought to look into Joe Biden," quote. Your reaction?

NANCY PELOSI: Just another example of the lack of integrity, decency and patriotism on the part of this administration. We don't know the facts. We don't know if Ukraine is the country that is the subject of the telephone conversation. That remains to be seen.

But what is a fact is the law. And the law says the director of national intelligence shall - not should, not may we encourage - shall convey the whistleblower information to the intelligence committees in the Congress. And right now, they are breaking the law.

DAVIS: To that end, if there is evidence that there is lawbreaking, or if there is evidence that the president is trying to interfere with the 2020 election by asking a foreign entity to investigate political opponents, does that change the calculation on impeachment?

PELOSI: We've always been in search of the facts. And that is the calculus, is what are the facts. We are in court on four cases right now - whether it's the president's taxes, whether it's his bank accounts, whether it's his accounting and his emoluments. This case has a national security piece to it that is very alarming because the inspector general is appointed by President Trump. If, in fact, it is as is described, described this of urgency and of concern - and again, the law says the director of national intelligence shall send the information.

SHAPIRO: You refer to a lack of integrity, decency and patriotism by this president. You are...

PELOSI: And this administration. Let me have it be more of a blanket.

SHAPIRO: You are describing potential acts of lawbreaking. And many people will hear that and say, if Congress does not pursue impeachment, does it forever change the standard of what is acceptable behavior by any president?

PELOSI: I don't know about lawbreaking. I said we don't have the information. I don't want to suggest that I said that because we don't have the information. And while others may speculate, I have to go on the basis of the law and the facts. And that's where decisions will be made.

Our founders could never suspect that a president would be so abusive of the Constitution of the United States that the separation of powers would be irrelevant to him and that he would continue - any president - would continue to withhold facts from the Congress, which are part of the constitutional right of inquiry. So this is in a different class in terms of his behavior. But again, the facts and the law.

I do think that we will have to pass some laws that will have clarity for future presidents. President should be indicted if he's committed of wrongdoing, any president.

SHAPIRO: While in office?

PELOSI: Any president. There is nothing anyplace that says the president should not be indicted. That's...

DAVIS: It's the Justice Department interpretation.

PELOSI: ...Something cooked up by the president's lawyers - that's what that is - so that people will feel - OK, well, if he does something wrong, should be able to be indicted. The president should not be able to interpret that National Security Act as something that gives him free reign to do anything he wants by his personal declaration that something is an emergency. And it behooves Congress to make sure - whether it's trade agreements that he says he has the ability to do this, that and the other thing, Congress has to retain its power in all of these arenas.

DAVIS: But hasn't he proven the point that Congress is not very strong right now and not very effective?

PELOSI: Well, he's at 38% in the polls. I think the public is making his own judgment about him. And he will remain under 50% in the polls. Four or five of our candidates beat him when we haven't even decided who our candidate is.

SHAPIRO: If I could pivot to international affairs, Secretary of State Pompeo was in Saudi Arabia this week talking about a strike that the U.S. and the Saudis blame on Iran. Do you think military action in Iran should be on the table right now?

PELOSI: Absolutely not. I do not think that we have a responsibility to protect and defend Saudi Arabia. What agreement is that a part of?

SHAPIRO: Do you believe that if this administration decides to go to war with Iran that Congress would have an opportunity to make its voice heard as the Constitution requires?

PELOSI: Of course. But the president's authorities on going to war are unleashed if we are attacked. Saudi Arabia? Please. They're sitting across from a person who chopped up a reporter and dissolved his remains in chemicals, and he's sitting across the chair from the person suspected of leading that. I don't see any responsibility for us to protect and defend Saudi Arabia.

SHAPIRO: This White House has shown so little respect for congressional power. What makes you think it would respect congressional opposition to a military strike in Iran?

PELOSI: No, I don't think the president wants this strike in Iran. He's been advocating how wrong it was to go into Iraq after he decided he was against the war in Iraq. He knows there's no appetite in that country to go to war. We're paying a price for one of the biggest mistakes in our history, going into Iraq. And now we're in this war in Afghanistan because we neglected it to go into Iraq.

SHAPIRO: This president is so unpredictable. Do you worry...

PELOSI: Do I worry?

SHAPIRO: ...That something will happen in Iran that could pull the U.S. into war?

PELOSI: I worry about everything I worry about the Constitution. I worry about the environment. He - disloyal to the Constitution, degrades the environment, says we're not going make any decisions on the environment based on science. Oh, that's a good one. He denigrates who we are as a people - by and large a nation of immigrants unless you're blessed to be born a Native American, which is a blessing to all of us.

But he denigrates who we are. He devalues our value of the idea of America. So we have a difference. Elections are the place where you fight that out. If, in fact, the Congress needs to take action, we will. But we will not be guided by anything other than our responsibility to our oath of office and not politics or partisanship. It's not about that. It's about patriotism. And when it comes to declaring war, that power is vested in the Congress of the United States unless our country is attacked. Our country has not been attacked in the Saudi incident.

SHAPIRO: Madam Speaker, thank you for joining us today.

PELOSI: Thank you. My pleasure.

SHAPIRO: And in another part of the program, we hear more about the speaker's plan to lower the prices Americans pay for their prescription drugs. Pelosi says this addresses a need President Trump should pay attention to.

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PELOSI: He may not have noticed, but in the last election, the health care issue, the cost of prescription drugs, was foremost for families, whether they were Democrats, Republicans or Independents or no interest in politics whatsoever - God bless them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALT-J SONG, "SOMETHING GOOD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.