MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
No cooperation, no concessions, full on combat - that sums up the state of play between the White House and Democrats. In the latest twist, former Vice President Joe Biden called today for the first time for President Trump to be impeached. That follows a remarkable eight-page letter from White House counsel Pat Cipollone to Democrats on Capitol Hill. The letter, released last night, declares the impeachment inquiry baseless and unconstitutional and says the president will not take part in it. Well, we wanted to do a close read of the letter and how it raises the stakes in this fight, so we have called on Jack Quinn, who served as White House counsel to President Clinton. Jack Quinn, welcome.
JACK QUINN: Thank you so much. Pleased to be with you.
KELLY: Glad to have you with us. I'll start with a very basic question. When you read this letter, what leapt out at you?
QUINN: To be honest - and I've said this before - I was surprised that Pat Cipollone put his name on it. It's just - it's not well-lawyered. It's not well-reasoned. It speaks in, I think, almost complete ignorance of the constitutional provisions governing the relationship between the executive branch and the legislative branch and, most importantly, of the impeachment process.
KELLY: When you say not well-lawyered, explain. What do you mean?
QUINN: I mean, the first thing that probably deserves that description is this whole section of the letter that talks about the fact that the president hasn't been afforded due process rights under the Constitution...
QUINN: ...And that makes the process here entirely unconstitutional. So due process rights are an important part of our Constitution, and they apply to any one of us who's in the middle of a criminal proceeding, for example. But this is different. We're not in a grand jury. The president's not about to be indicted, at least not anytime soon. The process that is underway is the very early steps - what the House has chosen to call an inquiry into whether or not there should be a more formal move to impeach the president.
KELLY: Although, I mean, if Pat Cipollone were here, he would argue, A, President Trump is an American. He is entitled to the same rights as any American citizen. I'm reading from Page 1 (reading) therefore he has - he enjoys the basic rights guaranteed to all Americans, which would include due process under the Constitution.
QUINN: Well, the Constitution doesn't say that either, OK? What the Constitution says specifically with respect to impeachment, it says that the House of Representatives - and I'm shortening the sentence - the House of Representatives shall have the sole power of impeachment - period. There's a period at the end of that. And there's no sentence following in that...
KELLY: They don't tell the House how to do it.
QUINN: Exactly. They have the sole power here...
KELLY: Although, if I may just - if I may jump in. I'm not a lawyer, but it seems to me this letter is arguing something that's almost more basic. It's arguing every American is afforded certain basic rights, including the right to defend themselves, and that the president in this impeachment inquiry is being denied that right. Is that legally persuasive to you in any way?
QUINN: No because, I mean, sure, I agree with the proposition that every American is in one way or another guaranteed the right to defend themselves. And we have extensive case law and provisions - a number of provisions in the Constitution that afford every American that right. But they do so in the context of being accused, for example, of crimes. In the case of impeachment, if the framers had wanted to extend those particular rights and the case law that has been developed for the criminal process into the impeachment process, they could easily have done that. And so Pat made this up or somebody on his staff made this up literally out of whole cloth. There is no constitutional basis for it. Frankly, it just - it boggles the mind, as I say, that he would have put his name on this argument. It is about as thin as it can get.
KELLY: Let me ask you this. Do you know Pat Cipollone?
QUINN: We've met.
KELLY: I assume he is also very familiar with the Constitution having gotten as far as he has in his legal career.
QUINN: Look, he's doing what his client wants him to do.
KELLY: Well, that prompts my next question, which is, when you are White House counsel, who's the client? Is the job to serve the presidency or the president?
QUINN: The former. Your job is to serve the office of the - the institutional office of the president, not the individual serving as president.
KELLY: I imagine, though, it's sometimes difficult to separate the two, to draw a line between the Oval Office and the person who's sitting in it.
QUINN: Yes. And if you come to a fundamental disagreement with the person occupying the office of president, then what you really need to do is resign from your job.
KELLY: Jack Quinn, thank you very much.
QUINN: Thank you.
KELLY: He served as White House counsel to President Clinton from 1995 to '97 and he's a CNN legal analyst. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.