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Impeachment: It's Not About Right And Wrong, Says Political Science Professor

professor teaching class
Professor Frank Orlando teaches a course on the presidency, and Tuesday's class focused on impeachment. KERRY SHERIDAN/WUSF PUBLIC MEDIA

The potential impeachment of a President, like Donald Trump, is a highly partisan affair, where truth can be hard to find.

Political science professor Frank Orlando of St. Leo University is teaching his students to understand it through the lens of both history, and strategy.

Thirteen students attended his class, "The Presidency," on Tuesday at the Pasco County school for a special session all about impeachment.

He started by explaining impeachable offenses: treason, bribery, and the vaguely worded "high crimes and misdemeanors."

Why is that terminology so unclear? Because the Founding Fathers couldn't agree. 

"In the debate over the Constitution, there was a lot of hand wringing about what impeachment should be. So for example, high crimes and misdemeanors, why it says that, is because it was a compromise," said Orlando.

"My classes are never really designed towards saying like, 'what is just or what is right?' And even those are important things," he added. "My classes are more about, well, what is this institution going to do? Or what is can we predict what's going to happen or strategically, what should happen?"

After mapping out the number of Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate, he likens the process to the criminal justice system.

professor pointing to screen
Credit Kerry Sheridan / WUSF
Frank Orlando maps out red and blue states for his students

"The House is bringing charges and the courtroom setting is the Senate. The trial is the Senate."

He pointed out that teams of lawyers are flanking each side of the chambers. Then he moved on to news reports that detail what politicians have said about where they stand.

Orlando read quotes from various elected officials in the New York Times. He told students to look for truth not in what they say, but in where their interests lie.

"(Florida Republican Sen.) Rick Scott... our former governor (says): 'There's nothing there.' (Iowa Sen.) Joni Ernst from Iowa. You know what she cares about. 'I don't see anything there.' And then what does she say? 'If you want to talk about ethanol, I'm happy to talk about ethanol because that's where all my efforts are right now.'"

More than two dozen students of diverse backgrounds and political beliefs are enrolled in the class, including 21-year-old Aliceison Brown.

"Hearing everybody's opinions about it, it really did open my eyes a little bit more into looking into the situation, because I had a clear understanding, but it was much more like my eyes and eyebrows are all to the ceilings and ears are wide open," she said.

class of college students
Credit Kerry Sheridan / WUSF
More than two dozen students of diverse beliefs and backgrounds take part in class debate. KERRY SHERIDAN/WUSF PUBLIC MEDIA

These students were either babies, or hadn't been born yet when President Bill Clinton was impeached in 1998-99.

For Caleb Kroh, 20, the class was eye-opening.

"I think a lot of people these days think reading social media and reading headlines is enough to say that you are educated on a subject," said Kroh. "Something like this it gives you an idea what actually goes into the whole process."

Orlando said that by focusing on history and strategy, students can gain a better understanding of what is unfolding on the political stage.

"It might be a bit cynical. But I think in my classes, we try to think about this in terms of politicians making decisions, not based on what is right and wrong, but based on what might help them politically. And we think that that's more realistic way to look at things."

Orlando said his main goal is for his students hold their leaders accountable.

I cover health and K-12 education – two topics that have overlapped a lot since the pandemic began.
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