The U.S. House judiciary committee opened its first impeachment hearing Wednesday, moving swiftly to weigh findings by fellow lawmakers that President Donald Trump misused the power of his office for personal political gain and then obstructed Congress’s investigation.
The judiciary committee is hearing from legal experts to determine whether Trump’s actions with Ukraine policy, including a July 25 phone call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, rose to the constitutional level of “high crimes and misdemeanours” warranting impeachment and possible removal from office.
A 300-page report compiled by Democrats on the House intelligence committee laid out evidence of Trump’s efforts to seek foreign intervention in the U.S. election.
The session Wednesday with legal scholars is delving into possible impeachable offences, but the panel, led by chairman Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat from New York, quickly revealed the sometimes boisterous, sharply partisan divisions on the committee.
“President Trump welcomed foreign interference in the 2016 election,” said Nadler in his opening statement.
“He demanded it for the 2020 election. In both cases, he got caught. And in both cases, he did everything in his power to prevent the American people from learning the truth about his conduct.”
“If we do not act to hold him in check, now, President Trump will almost certainly try again to solicit interference in the [upcoming] election for his personal political gain,” he added.
In a 53-page opening statement obtained by the AP, Republican witness Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University, will say the Democrats are bringing a “slipshod impeachment” case against the president based on second-hand information. Still, Turley doesn’t excuse the president’s behaviour.
If Congress fails to impeach here, then the impeachment process has lost all meaning.– Michael Gerhardt, constitutional law witness
“It is not wrong because President Trump is right,” according to Turley. He calls Trump’s call with Ukraine “anything but ‘perfect,” as the president claims. “A case for impeachment could be made, but it cannot be made on this record.”
Turley said that moving ahead with impeachment would set a “dangerous precedent” for curtailing the actions of future presidents.
The remaining three witnesses, all called by Democrats, said there was a case to be made for impeachment.
Michael Gerhardt of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill argues, “If Congress fails to impeach here, then the impeachment process has lost all meaning.”
“The president’s conduct described by the testimony embodies the [constitution’s] framers’ concern that a sitting president would corruptly abuse the powers of office to distort the outcome of a presidential election in his favour,” Harvard University law professor Noah Feldman said.
Pamela Karlan of Stanford University law school said Trump abused his power by demanding foreign involvement in a U.S. election.
“What has happened in the case today is something I do not think we have ever seen before: a president who has doubled down on violating his oath to faithfully execute the laws and to protect and defend the Constitution,” said Karlan.
Article II, Section IV of the U.S. Constitution stipulates that the president and other officers of government “shall be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanours.”
Democrats could begin drafting articles of impeachment against the president in a matter of days, with a judiciary committee vote next week. The full House could vote by Christmas. Then the matter would move to the Senate for a trial in 2020.
“If you want to know what’s really driving this — it’s called the clock and the calendar,” said ranking Republican committee member Doug Collins, in an opening statement dismissive of the hearing.
The White House, which declined an invitation to participate in Wednesday’s session, has stymied efforts by Democrats in various House committees to question administration officials or obtain documents. Some have appeared after being issued subpoenas, while others have defied the subpoenas, including Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani.
“In this situation, the full-scale obstruction of those subpoenas I think torpedoes separation of powers, and therefore your only recourse is to in a sense protect your institutional prerogatives, and that would include impeachment,” argued Gerhardt.
Possible grounds for impeachment are focused on whether Trump abused his office as he pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to open investigations into Trump’s political rivals, as has been alleged Trump did. At the time, Trump was withholding $400 million US in military aid, jeopardizing key support as Ukraine faces an aggressive Russia at its border.
The report did not render a judgment on whether Trump’s actions stemming from a July 25 phone call with Zelensky rose to the constitutional level of “high crimes and misdemeanours” warranting impeachment. That is for the full House to decide. But its findings involving Trump’s efforts to seek foreign intervention in the American election process provide the basis for a House vote on impeachment and a Senate trial carrying the penalty of removal from office.
Republicans defended the president in a 123-page rebuttal claiming Trump never intended to pressure Ukraine when he asked for a “favour” — investigations of Joe Biden, whose son served on a Ukraine energy board, and a probe of a discredited theory involving the cyberintrusions of the Democratic National Committee. They say the military aid the White House was withholding was not being used as leverage and that the aid was ultimately released.
The Democrats have countered that the aid was only released when it was apparent that Congress would investigate.
Most of the legal scholars said that it didn’t matter that the aid was eventually dispersed.
“Soliciting itself is the impeachable offence,” said Karlan.
Trump comments ‘struck a kind of horror’
Feldman agreed, drawing an analogy to President Richard Nixon not being successful in his coverup of the Watergate break-in. Nixon nonetheless had committed an impeachable offence, he said.
When reminded that Trump claimed at a July event two days before the Zelenksy call that Article 2 of the constitution gave him “the right to do whatever I want as president,” Feldman said those comments “struck a kind of horror in me.”
Based on two months of investigation sparked by a still-anonymous government whistleblower’s complaint, the report relies heavily on testimony from current and former U.S. officials who defied White House orders not to appear.
The inquiry found Trump “solicited the interference of a foreign government, Ukraine, to benefit his re-election,” House intelligence chair Adam Schiff wrote in the report’s preface.
In doing so, the president “sought to undermine the integrity of the U.S. presidential election process, and endangered U.S. national security,” the report said.
Along with revelations from earlier testimony, the report included previously unreleased cellphone records raising fresh questions about Giuliani’s interactions with the White House’s Office of Management and Budget as well as the top Republican on the intelligence panel, Devin Nunes of California. Nunes declined to comment.
Trump, who has called the impeachment inquiry “unpatriotic,” said Wednesday in London at the NATO summit that he didn’t know why Giuliani was speaking with the OMB.
Trump encouraged reporters to ask Giuliani about the calls, but claimed they are “no big deal.”