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Explaining the impeachment process — on "The Takeout"

The impeachment inquiry against President Trump is the top news in Washington, but the details are often muddied by the rapid pace of breaking news and statements by politicians that are difficult to verify. Kim Wehle, a law professor and legal analyst for CBS News, spoke with CBS News chief Washington correspondent Major Garrett for this week's episode of "The Takeout" podcast to explain the impeachment process.

Listen to this episode on Stitcher

Wehle said that contrary to Republican talking points that Democrats are attempting to undo the results of the 2016 election, or even engage in a coup against the president, the impeachment process was designed by the framers of the Constitution as a peaceful way to remove someone from office.

"It's to remove people from office without a lot of drama, without a coup, without something that is severely traumatic on the country," Wehle said about impeachment. "We're not talking about putting someone in jail, we're talking about essentially firing them."

Wehle also said that despite the constitutional guidance that an official needs to have committed "high crimes and misdemeanors" to be impeached, impeachment is ultimately a political process, not a criminal one.

"The framers did not have in mind exclusively that we're talking about a crime," Wehle said, explaining that the standard and the burden of proof for impeachment are lower than in a criminal investigation.

The White House counsel sent a letter to Congress this week saying that the White House would not cooperate with the impeachment inquiry, complaining that the House had not held a formal vote on the launch of the inquiry. However, the Constitution dictates that the House has the power to set the rules for the process.

"They can set their rules under the Constitution for how the impeachment process works," Wehle said, explaining that the House does not need to hold a full vote on opening an impeachment inquiry. However, if the House takes the White House to court for refusing to comply with the inquiry, Democrats may have a stronger case if they hold a full vote.

Wehle said that the White House's argument for not cooperating with the inquiry was likely not legally defensible, because the inquiry involves questions of foreign interference in an American election. House Democrats are investigating a call between Mr. Trump and the Ukrainian president that took place in July, when the president urged Ukraine to investigate political rival Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden.

"This really does strike at the heart of democracy itself," Wehle said. "That's squarely historically within the boundaries of the Constitution and the congressional impeachment prerogative."

Wehle, who also worked for Special Counsel Ken Starr during the Whitewater investigation in the Clinton administration, described some of the differences between the current impeachment process and the Clinton impeachment. One change, she said, was in the technology available to the American people — the Clinton impeachment did not occur in an era of social media and the 24/7 news cycle.

Wehle also said that she was surprised by the conduct of some government officials defending the president in ways that were not necessarily legally defensible.

"As someone who worked in government, and now is just an academic, I've been really stunned by the positions that have been taken by government lawyers that really are not consistent with the best interest of the integrity of the Constitution itself," Wehle said.

For more of Major's conversation with Kim Wehle, download "The Takeout" podcast on  iTunesGooglePlaySpotify and Stitcher. New episodes are available every Friday morning. Also, you can watch "The Takeout" on CBSN Friday at 5pm, 9pm, and 12am ET and Saturday at 1pm, 9pm, and 12am ET. For a full archive of "The Takeout" episodes, visit www.takeoutpodcast.com. And you can listen to "The Takeout" on select CBS News Radio affiliates (check your local listings).  

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