Senator not decided, waiting on more evidence

Jones: Impeachment could involve abuse of power


Feeling President Donald Trump was wrong to ask Ukraine's president to investigate Joe Biden's son, U.S. Sen. Doug Jones says articles of impeachment do not necessarily have to involve breaking an actual law, but could involve a broader charge of abuse of power and putting personal interests above the country and its national security. 

However, he said he has not concluded yet if the president's recent actions involve an impeachable offense, saying an investigation must first be done and evidence presented. 

Jones, who is in the state during the Congress' two-week congressional break, stopped by the Daily Mountain Eagle Monday for multi-media interviews over its print, YouTube and podcast formats. The YouTube interview will also be linked to its Facebook and Twitter accounts.

The U.S. House is moving closer to impeaching President Trump, possibly by Thanksgiving. If that happens, a trial will be held in the U.S. Senate to possibly remove Trump from office, with senators sitting in judgement. 

Trump ordered that $400 million in military aide to Ukraine be withheld July 25, a week before his controversial call with Volodymyr Zelensky, where Trump suggested as a personal favor that country investigate Biden's son, as revealed by a whistleblower and confirmed by a later transcript.

Asked if President Trump should have asked Zelensky to investigate Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden's son, Jones said, "Absolutely not. There is no question they should not have done that. That is a personal matter. That is a campaign matter." 

Jones noted the U.S. has been fighting election interference by the Russians that happened in 2016, adding that Iran and China are now engaged in such activity. 

"But, there is no way in the world the president of the United States should use his office to engage with a foreign country that really we hold a lot of power over in terms of money and security," he said.

He added the president should not try "to engage them in a personal campaign to interfere with the United States elections, to have his personal lawyer do it and also to potentially engage the Department of Justice, using the resources of the United States to do an assist in that. It is absolutely wrong to do that." 

However, Jones - a former U.S. attorney who successful prosecuted two Ku Klux Klan members for the 1963 Birmingham church bombing - said that does not necessarily mean the activity rises to the level of an impeachable offense. 

"I think it is really serious," he said. "There is no question we need to get all of the facts. It is not just that one phone call. We need to get all of the facts that have been alleged right now in that whistleblower complaint. But this is a really serious matter, and people should take this very serious." 

He said no one would want any president to use their power to help themselves or hurt someone else in a political campaign. He raised the hypothetical idea of President Obama  asking Ukraine as a personal favor to end an investigation into his vice president's son, suggesting, "We hold a lot of purse strings with you guys and the Russians are breathing down your neck." 

"I think people would have wanted President Obama's head if that was the case," he said. 

He said the nation does not need to "go into our political corners," but should look at the facts instead. 

On Trump's wanting to meet the whistleblower and likening the official and others as spies and traitors, Jones said that facing an accuser "at some point is a valid point," but it is too early in the process for that. More will be fleshed out when the House deals with impeachment, he said. 

"What I don't like and what I do think, again, is highly inappropriate" for Trump to use terms like "treason" in the discussion. He said the president should run the country and "let this play out," and defend himself.

"But you don't defend yourself by attacking others the way he is attacking members of the House," he said. "What I do worry about very much, when he starts talking about treason and the way we used to deal with traitors. I just worry about words. Words can often have consequences and lead to really bad results." 

Jones was asked whether, under the Constitution's mandate for "high crimes and misdemeanors," any charges would be restricted to commonly understood breaking of the law, or whether articles of impeachment could go into broader constitutional charges of breaking his oath by putting the president's personal interest above the nation's interest. Harvard Law School professor Laurence Tribe, who has written about impeachment,  suggested the broader approach in a recent MSNBC interview, saying that is what the Founding Fathers envisioned.

Jones said, "I think it would be the latter. I don't think you necessarily have to break a law. We have such a different set of laws, whether it is federal jurisdiction, whether it is a state law or a state crime. I think it is the broader interpretation of abuse of power, whether the president has put the national security interests in jeopardy, whether he is doing something for personal gain.

"Could that be a potential legal violation? Sure. But I don't think it absolutely has to be in this case. Now, that is my interpretation. We'll see how this goes. Look, when I got elected in 2017, this is not something I ever anticipated I would have to do. So I am learning a little bit of that aspect of it as well, to see where things go. But ultimately, I think it will come down to an abuse of power, placing the national security at risk. Those kinds of things are very serious allegations. 

"And people have been looking at this in terms of elements of a crime. I just don't think you look at it that way. I've seen too many times as a prosecutor and a defense lawyer, there is no smoking gun. You're not going to see that a lot. You have to look at this like a puzzle and where these pieces of the puzzle fit in, if they fit in at all." 

Asked if he had made up his mind on conviction in the Senate, he said, "Absolutely not." 

"I'm very troubled about what I see," noting his years as a trial lawyer, as a prosecutor and a defense lawyer. He said one piece of "damning evidence" was the phone call transcript released by the White House. 

"On the other hand, I've seen so many cases" in which one piece of evidence that stands alone appears to be very bad but "put in the proper context is not so bad after all." He doesn't know if that will be the case here.

On the other side, he pointed to Trump defenders who said the transcript doesn't prove anything, including a quid pro quo proposal. 

"They need to wait, too, because I've seen just as many times when innocent information -  innocent, just innocuous information, once it is plugged into the bigger piece of the puzzle, becomes really important and connects the dots," he said. "I have not made up my mind." 

He said unlike a trial, much of the evidence will play out in the open as the House continues to investigate. 

"I don't think it is a foregone conclusion that they will actually vote to impeach the president. Where I think we are in right now is an investigation phase, and I'll see where that goes," Jones said. 

On speculation by former Sen. Jeff Flake and political advisor Mike Murphy that 30 or more GOP senators would vote for conviction if a secret ballot were held, Jones said he does not have enough interaction to know how they stand. However, he said most Republicans "have a conscience and want to do the right things." He said they would have to decide what is is the right action in regards to the oath they took to protect and defend the Constitution.