A panel of legal experts Wednesday testified that President Trump’s campaign to pressure Ukraine paired with his refusal to allow key witnesses to testify constitute impeachable offenses under the law.
Three of the legal experts testifying before the House Judiciary committee were in “total agreement” that Trump’s conduct, and that uncovered by former special counsel Robert Mueller last year, justified swift action on the part of lawmakers.
The professors included Noah Feldman, of Harvard Law School, Michael Gerhardt, of the University of North Carolina School of Law in Chapel Hill, and Pamela Karlan, from Stanford Law School.
A fourth professor, Jonathan Turley of the George Washington University School of Law, testified that the House was moving too swiftly toward impeachment and that more facts still needed to be uncovered.
The witnesses’ testimony marked a crucial next step in the ongoing impeachment inquiry, less than a day after the House Intelligence Committee released a sweeping evidence-gathering report that could form the backbone for articles of impeachment.
Those articles, should they be drafted, would be born in the judiciary committee, which formally assumed the lead role in the inquiry on Wednesday.
“The storm in which we find ourselves today was set in motion by President Trump,” said Democratic Chairman Jerry Nadler, of New York. “I do not wish this moment on the country. It is not a pleasant task we undertake today. But we have each taken an oath to protect the Constitution, and the facts before us are clear.”
Nadler’s line of questioning and that of the Democrats’ lead counsel Norm Eisen offered an early glimpse at what charges the committee may ultimately deliver.
Nadler repeatedly referenced the report by former special counsel Robert Mueller published earlier this year. By soliciting a Ukranian investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden, Trump’s presumed 2020 rival, the president threatened an upcoming election, Nadler said. But Mueller report revealed that he had done that before, by willingly inviting Russian interference in 2016, he added.
“President Trump welcomed foreign interference in the 2016 election,” Nadler said. “He demanded it for the 2020 election.”
The charges Democrats hinted at included abuse of power and bribery for Trump’s pressure against Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, obstruction of Congress for his refusal to turn over documents and witnesses, and obstruction of justice for his attempts to fire Mueller before the 2018 report had been completed.
The framers’ intent
According to Feldman, a celebrated constitutional scholar, each of those charges represent Trump using his office for personal gains.
“That matters fundamentally to the American people,” he said. “Because if we cannot impeach a president who abuses his office for personal advantage, we no longer live in a democracy; we live in a monarchy or we live under a dictatorship. That’s why the framers created the possibility of impeachment.”
But the president had staunch allies at Wednesday’s hearing. On at least three different occasions, Republican lawmakers interrupted witness testimony to introduce motions for the hearing to end or to call on Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff and the whistleblower whose complaint triggered the impeachment process to testify.
Although Nadler tabled their motions, Republicans forced time-consuming voting procedures that each fell along party lines, 24-17.
A professor’s caution
For his part, Turley, the Republicans’ witness, cautioned Democrats to slow down the impeachment process.
The impeachment clauses that are forming lack any significant case law and the facts that Democrats are alleging have not been adequately proven, he said. Instead, he added, Democrats are approaching the impeachment process from a place of anger.
“I get it,” he said. “You’re mad. The president’s mad. My Republican friends are mad. My Democratic friends are mad. My wife is mad. My kids are mad. Even my dog seems mad — and Luna is a goldendoodle and they don’t get mad.”
But a “slipshod” impeachment process will only result in more “madness,” Turley added.
“This is not how you impeach an American president.”
Update: After this story was filed, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced that the Judiciary Committee will file articles of impeachment against the president. His “abuse of power,” she said, warrants removal from office.