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Can a US President Be Charged With a Crime?

2017-08-12

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  • It is a constitutional question without a clear answer:
  • [00:06.29]
  • Can a sitting American president be charged with a crime?
  • [00:14.04]
  • The question has new importance as special counsel Robert Mueller investigates the Trump 2016 presidential campaign.
  • [00:27.65]
  • He is looking into possible connections between the campaign and Russians who reportedly interfered in the 2016 election.
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  • Last week, it was reported that Mueller is using a grand jury as part of his investigation.
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  • Grand juries decide if government investigators may legally demand private records and information from witnesses.
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  • There was no information about when—or whether—Mueller would bring criminal charges in the case.
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  • On Wednesday, the Washington Post reported that federal investigators searched and gathered evidence from the house of Paul Manafort, a Trump campaign manager.
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  • Mueller can prosecute any federal crimes linked to the investigation.
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  • In theory, that could include legal action against the president.
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  • Mueller is reportedly investigating if Trump obstructed justice when he dismissed James Comey as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
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  • If Mueller's team decides to bring charges against Trump, it could create a legal battle -- one that could likely end at the Supreme Court.
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  • The Constitution lists conditions under which a president can be impeached and removed from office.
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  • But the Constitution does not directly say whether the president can be prosecuted, or tried for a crime.
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  • Also, federal law does not say whether a president can be prosecuted. Courts have never ruled on the issue.
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  • Eric Freedman teaches constitutional law at Hofstra University in New York.
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  • He says legal opinion is divided as to whether a sitting president can be charged with a crime.
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  • "It's an important and unsettled question," says Freedman.
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  • He says the possibility of legal charges is another way to keep presidents answerable for their actions.
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  • Those who believe a sitting president is protected from criminal charges say it comes down to governing the country.
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  • A criminal charge, they say, could prevent presidents from carrying out their duties.
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  • That would damage the ability of the government to work.
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  • They say this is an understood constitutional principle.
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  • Others argue that the Constitution would include clear terms of such legal protection for the president if that is what its creators had wanted.
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  • These experts also argue that the Constitution clearly states no person is above the law.
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  • Kenneth Starr agrees with this view.
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  • He was the independent counsel who investigated former President Bill Clinton.
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  • In a Starr office memo recently uncovered by The New York Times, Starr said it is right, constitutional, and legal for a president to be charged for serious crimes that are not part of the president’s official duties.
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  • "In this country,” he wrote, “no one, even President Clinton, is above the law."
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  • Impeachment is the process by which Congress brings charges against the president.
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  • It means Congress is the court that tries the president.
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  • Impeachment is a political, not legal, process, according to James Pfiffner, a public policy professor at George Mason University.
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  • He believes impeachment is the best way constitutionally to hold a president accountable.
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  • The Constitution says reasons to impeach a president include "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors."
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  • Congress alone has the power to decide what that means.
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  • What does it take to impeach a president?
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  • A majority of lawmakers in the House of Representatives must agree on impeachment for it to happen.
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  • The Senate then holds a trial.
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  • And a president could be removed from office if two-thirds of the Senate agree the president is guilty.
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  • Only two American presidents have been impeached by the House of Representatives - Bill Clinton and Andrew Johnson.
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  • The Senate ruled not guilty in both cases.
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  • President Richard Nixon was facing possible impeachment when he resigned.
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  • The next president, Gerald Ford, pardoned Nixon after he left office.
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  • As a result, the former president could not face criminal charges.
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  • Now, some are questioning if a sitting president could pardon him or herself.
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  • Last month, The Washington Post reported that President Trump had asked his lawyers about such a possibility, although his lawyer denied the newspaper story.
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  • It appears the Constitution would permit a sitting president to pardon anyone for any crime at any time.
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  • I’m Caty Weaver.
  • [08:03.13]
  • And I’m Anne Ball.
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