News & Politics

An Important Impeachment Memo Vanished From a Senate Web Server

Senate staff now say the memo's contents can be found elsewhere. But the original still can't be accessed.

Image via Shutterstock.

A public memo that outlined the Senate’s obligations during an impeachment trial is no longer accessible to the public on a Senate web server in its original form.

The memo, titled, “An Overview of the Impeachment Process,” dates to 2005, when it was produced by a legislative attorney working for the Congressional Research Service. It provides a legal interpretation of several impeachment-related powers and duties of the Senate, as well as the House of Representatives, based on a detailed review of the Congressional record dating back to 1868.

The document, which was still circulating among journalists and academics as late as early October, was housed on a server maintained by Reporters this week began noticing that the URL returned a 404 error message, indicating the PDF document couldn’t be found. The impeachment memo isn’t available at another online database maintained by CRS.

After probing for the cause of the removal, staff in the Secretary of the Senate’s office later explained that they attributed the document’s removal to a maintenance error that was related to consolidations of documents on the Senate’s impeachment resource guide. As part of that consolidation, contents of the memo were moved into a 2015 document with a different date and heading, “Impeachment and Removal.”

The original report, left, now directs users to an error message.

Senate staff pointed out that the contents of the memo are still intact in another location, though the resource index doesn’t mention  where it has gone and the memo’s origin is unlisted there. The original document has been widely cited during the Trump era, using its URL as a citation. As a result, several published references still point to a faulty Senate address, including a report by Common Cause; neighborly chatter on forums like DC Urban Moms and Dads; and high school lesson plans teaching “the rule of law.”

The original document is preserved in a digital archive at the University of North Texas. In its conclusions, the nonpartisan memo construes the impeachment powers of the House broadly, while limiting the Senate more narrowly to a set of prescribed procedures. For example, the memo concludes that an impeachment investigation can originate with the declaration of a single House member, the method that Speaker Nancy Pelosi invoked in late September, which was recently upheld by a federal judge. The memo also doesn’t define which committee must oversee the investigation, also in keeping with Pelosi’s approach. Both points have been pressed repeatedly by Republicans to discredit the House impeachment inquiry.

The 2005 report’s language is also more adamant than other legal opinions about what is required of the Senate. For comparison, a recent impeachment overview published last month describes the Senate’s requirement to hold a trial as an unsettled question; the 2005 memo, by contrast, treats the Senate trial as a foregone conclusion.

Senate staff believe the document was inaccessible for approximately a month, between October and November. They attribute the removal to error and bad timing. But the original server address would not be restored, they said, meaning the published resources that point to the server address will still lead to an error.

Note: This article was updated to include late comment from the Secretary of the Senate’s office, which said that the memo contents had been integrated into another document, and attributed the disappearance to maintenance error. 

Benjamin Wofford
Staff Writer

Benjamin Wofford is a contributing editor at Washingtonian.