AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
This week began with mounting pressure on the speaker of the House to begin impeachment proceedings. As she has done for much of this year, Nancy Pelosi held fast to her strategy of pursuing multiple investigations on multiple committees and not impeachment as the best way to hold the president accountable. Irv Nathan was general counsel of the U.S. House of Representatives from 2007 to 2011. He joins us now. Welcome to the studio.
IRV NATHAN: Thank you.
CORNISH: So, first, let's talk about the strategy itself. Why is this preferable to opening impeachment proceedings?
NATHAN: Well, I think it's the right course to follow. The courts will uphold the subpoenas that have been issued by the House and will compel the attendance of the witnesses and the production of documents. The problem with the approach to go to court is the potential delay. And the courts need to recognize that there is a need for urgency here and to compel people to appear promptly and to produce the documents promptly.
CORNISH: Now, there have been a couple of court cases in just recent weeks that have favored Democrats. One allowed a House committee to subpoena Trump's financial records, and another allowed Deutsche Bank to turn over Trump's records. Pelosi suggested yesterday that the president saw these as setbacks.
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NANCY PELOSI: I think what really got to him was these court cases and the fact that the House Democratic Caucus is not on a path to impeachment.
CORNISH: What does she mean by that? Why should these rulings concern the executive branch?
NATHAN: Well, I think because, first of all, they're rulings in favor of the House, not for a political party. And the rulings demonstrate that the House is perfectly within its constitutional rights to compel witnesses and to get documents so that they can be used for the constitutional responsibility of oversight and legislation by the House.
CORNISH: What had been the argument from the White House? What are they saying when the president essentially issues a kind of blanket denial of subpoenas and witnesses going forward? What are they arguing?
NATHAN: Well, they have no valid legal ground. They are claiming that this is harassment and it's not for legitimate legislative purposes but it clearly is. And the courts recognize that and will reject the claims by the executive.
CORNISH: I want to turn to this argument from some members of Congress who say, look, they can use impeachment as a way to loosen documents - right? - to kind of compel the White House to take part in the investigation. Can you talk about what that would mean? What would impeachment actually do?
NATHAN: Yes, very little to have impeachment proceedings as opposed to simple oversight. The one area where it could produce additional results is in the area of grand jury matters because one of the ways to get grand jury material is to have it for a judicial proceeding. And the cases suggest that an impeachment is a judicial proceeding. But in all other respects, there's really no difference between an oversight hearing and an impeachment hearing. So impeachment - having impeachment proceedings would add very little to the court ability to get the materials.
CORNISH: Is there a point at which legally it would kind of force the hand of the House to open impeachment proceedings?
NATHAN: Well, there could come a time if they decide to do that. But I think that the House is on the right track by having oversight hearings to demonstrate to the American people basically what's in the Mueller report and to get the American people on its side in connection with the next election, which is obviously looming in 2020.
CORNISH: At the end of the day, is this mostly a political discussion, not a legal one? Like, is this about the court of public opinion?
NATHAN: No. I think it's a legal question. And the legal question is, are these House subpoenas enforceable? And does the White House have a leg to stand on in its stonewalling? And I think the legal answer is no. And I think it's a constitutional question that the House can do its function of oversight or if it turns out to be impeachment. But either way, the case law is soundly on the House's side to get that information.
CORNISH: Irv Nathan was general counsel of the U.S. House of Representatives from 2007 to 2011. Thank you for speaking with us.
NATHAN: My pleasure.
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