Schiff calls Dershowitz arguments on a president's powers 'constitutional madness'

WASHINGTON – House impeachment manager Adam Schiff on Thursday sharply criticized the legal theory used by attorney Alan Dershowitz to defend President Trump’s pressure campaign on Ukraine, calling it “constitutional madness.”

“There is no limiting principle to the argument we heard last night,” Schiff, D-Calif., said during the impeachment trial in the Senate chamber. “It’s astounding.”

“What we have seen over the last couple of days is a descent into constitutional madness,” Schiff added.

Schiff was referring to arguments made Wednesday evening by Dershowitz on behalf of Trump’s defense. An emeritus professor at Harvard Law School, Dershowitz asserted that if a president exchanges in a quid pro quo with a foreign power in order to help himself get reelected but also perceives it to be in the public interest, that alone is not enough to impeach that president.

“Everybody has mixed motives, and for there to be a constitutional impeachment based on mixed motives would permit almost any president to be impeached,” Dershowitz said.

Dershowitz argued that history is filled with examples of a presidents acting simultaneously to benefit the country as well as his own political prospects.

Adam Schiff

“How many presidents have made foreign policy decisions after checking with their political advisers and their pollsters? If you are just acting in the national interest, why do you need pollsters? Why do you need political advisers? Just do what is best for the country. But if you want to balance what is in the public interest with what is in your party’s electoral interest and your own electoral interest, it is impossible to discern how much weight is given to one or the other,” Dershowitz said.

The statement from Dershowitz that drew the most attention was this: “If a president does something which he believes will help him get elected — in the public interest — that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment.”

Legal scholars quickly took issue with Dershowitz’s claim.  

“It means that a president could break any law or abuse any power and say that it was for the public interest because the public interest would be served by his or her election,” Erwin Chemerinsky, a prominent law professor, told NBC News.

“This argument is more accurately described as the assertion that the success of the politician is too important to be left to a fair election,” wrote David French, a conservative constitutional lawyer, in the Dispatch. “The president can abuse his power to influence the public so long as he doesn’t clearly commit a crime.”

Alan Dershowitz

Dershowitz tweeted on Thursday that he was being “willfully distorted” and misunderstood “as if I had said that if a president believes that his re-election was in the national interest, he can do anything.”

“I said nothing like that, as anyone who actually heard what I said can attest,” Dershowitz wrote.

Dershowitz clarified that his argument was that there is “pure national interest” and “pure corrupt motive” and then there is a “mixed motive” scenario, and that mixed motives are “often the reality of politics and that helping one’s own re-election efforts cannot — by itself— necessarily be deemed corrupt.”

Schiff, however, blasted Dershowitz’s arguments before the Senate as giving the president almost unlimited powers to act in his own political interests, without fear of consequences.

“That is the normalization of lawlessness,” Schiff said.

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Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., walks away from the media to the Senate chamber during a break in the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump at the Capitol Wednesday Jan 29, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Senate Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer of N.Y., center, steps up to a microphone as Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., left, and Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., finish speaking with reporters during the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
As President Donald Trump's impeachment trial shifts to questions from senators, the lawmakers use these cards to hand-write their inquiries which are passed up to Chief Justice John Roberts, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, pauses as he speaks to a reporter outside the Senate chamber during a break in President Donald Trump's impeachment trial, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, right, confers with his communications staffer Katie Mulhall Quintela, left, during a break in President Donald Trump's impeachment trial at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
House Democratic impeachment manager House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., right, walks out of the Senate chamber during a break in the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump at the Capitol Wednesday Jan 29, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., walks out of the Senate chamber during a break in the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump at the Capitol Wednesday, Jan 29, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
House Democratic impeachment manager, Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., walks out of the Senate chamber during a break in the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump at the Capitol Wednesday Jan 29, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
House Democratic impeachment manager Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., right, walks out of the Senate chamber during a break in the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump at the Capitol, Wednesday, Jan 29, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, right, speaks to the media during a break in the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump at the Capitol, Wednesday, Jan 29, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Senate Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer of N.Y., waits to speaks with reporters during the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, rides an escalator before speaking with reporters during the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks with reporters during the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the lead Democratic manager, leaves the Senate chamber during a break as the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress stretches into the night, in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Senate Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer of N.Y. waits to speak with reporters during the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., leaves the Senate chamber during a break as the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress stretches into the night, in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., talks to the media break in the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump at the U.S. Capitol Wednesday Jan 29, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., center, walks with aides to the Senate chamber after a break in the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump at the U.S. Capitol Wednesday Jan 29, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
In this image from video, presiding officer Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts reads a question during the impeachment trial against President Donald Trump in the Senate at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020. (Senate Television via AP)
In this image from video, House impeachment manager Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., answers a question during the impeachment trial against President Donald Trump in the Senate at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020. (Senate Television via AP)
In this image from video, House impeachment manager Rep. Sylvia Garcia, D-Texas, answers a question during the impeachment trial against President Donald Trump in the Senate at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020. (Senate Television via AP)
In this image from video, Eric Herschmann, an attorney for President Donald Trump, answers a question during the impeachment trial against Trump in the Senate at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020. (Senate Television via AP)
In this image from video, Eric Herschmann, an attorney for President Donald Trump, answers a question during the impeachment trial against Trump in the Senate at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020. (Senate Television via AP)
In this image from video, White House counsel Pat Cipollone answers a question during the impeachment trial against Trump in the Senate at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020. (Senate Television via AP)
In this image from video, House impeachment manager Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., speaks during the impeachment trial against President Donald Trump in the Senate at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020. (Senate Television via AP)
In this image from video, White House counsel Pat Cipollone speaks during the impeachment trial against President Donald Trump in the Senate at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020. (Senate Television via AP)
In this image from video, House impeachment manager Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., answers a question during the impeachment trial against President Donald Trump in the Senate at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020. (Senate Television via AP)
In this image from video, House impeachment manager Rep. Sylvia Garcia, D-Texas, walks from the podium after answering a question during the impeachment trial against President Donald Trump in the Senate at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020. (Senate Television via AP)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., walks to the Senate chamber after a break in the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump at the U.S. Capitol Wednesday Jan 29, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts departs at the end of the day in the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts departs at the end of the day in the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., speaks with reporters as he departs at the end of the day in the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
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