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Emory Law Journal

Article Title

Impeachable Speech

Authors

Katherine Shaw

Abstract

Rhetoric is both an important source of presidential power and a key tool of presidential governance. For at least a century, the bully pulpit has amplified presidential power and authority, with significant consequences for the separation of powers and the constitutional order more broadly. Although the power of presidential rhetoric is a familiar feature of the contemporary legal and political landscape, far less understood are the constraints upon presidential rhetoric that exist within our system. Impeachment, of course, is one of the most important constitutional constraints on the president. And so, in the wake of the fourth major presidential impeachment effort in our history, it is worth pausing to examine the relationship between presidential rhetoric and Congress’s power of impeachment. Although presidential rhetoric was largely sidelined in the 2019–2020 impeachment of President Donald Trump, presidential speech actually played a significant role in every other major presidential impeachment effort in our history. Prior to President Trump, three presidents had faced serious impeachment threats: Andrew Johnson, in 1868; Richard Nixon, in 1974; and Bill Clinton, in 1998 and early 1999. In each of these episodes, the debate around impeachment encompassed, among other things, public presidential rhetoric—lies and misrepresentations; statements that took aim at Congress or undermined the rule of law. In the case of Andrew Johnson, presidential rhetoric formed the basis of one of the articles of impeachment approved by the House of Representatives. In the case of Richard Nixon, the first article of impeachment approved by the House Judiciary Committee—though never considered by the full House—made extensive reference to the president’s public statements. And one of the possible offenses identified in Independent Counsel Ken Starr’s impeachment referral focused on Bill Clinton’s lies to the American people; an impeachment article tracking that recommendation was initially debated by the House Judiciary Committee, but the language regarding public speech was removed before the committee vote. These aspects of impeachment history have largely escaped scholarly notice, and they may prove instructive as both Congress and the public debate impeachment, as well as other possible constraints on presidential rhetoric and presidential power, in 2020 and beyond.

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