WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives on Wednesday opened a critical new phase of the impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump, featuring legal scholars vigorously debating whether his conduct and the available evidence rose to the constitutional threshold necessary for his removal from office.
In a daylong hearing convened by the Judiciary Committee, three constitutional scholars invited by Democrats testified that evidence of Trump’s efforts to pressure Ukraine for political gain clearly met the definition of an impeachable abuse of power. They said his defiance of Congress’ investigative requests was further grounds for charging him.
A fourth scholar invited by Republicans disagreed, warning that Democrats were barreling forward with a shoddy case for the president’s removal based on inadequate evidence, and risked damaging the integrity of a sacred process enshrined in the Constitution.
The spirited exchange unfolded as the Judiciary Committee began determining which impeachment charges to lodge against Trump based on an investigation by the House Intelligence Committee. The president abused his power, sought to subvert an American election and endangered national security when he pressured Ukraine for political favors, Democrats said.
In an investigative report released Tuesday, they also concluded that Trump pressured President Volodymyr Zelenskiy of Ukraine to announce investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden and other Democrats, while withholding a White House meeting and $391 million in vital security assistance.
Within days and despite unanimous Republican opposition, the panel could begin drafting and debating articles of impeachment, eyeing a vote by the full House before Christmas. Democrats signaled Wednesday that the charges could be based not just on the Ukraine matter but also on earlier evidence that Trump may have obstructed justice when he sought to thwart federal investigators scrutinizing his campaign’s ties to Russia’s election interference operation.
But on Wednesday, in the wood and plasterwork-adorned chambers of the House Ways and Means Committee, lawmakers and the scholars they invited sparred over history and precedent as they prepared to embark on the third impeachment of a sitting president in American history.
Invoking arguments between the framers of the Constitution and impeachment precedents dating to monarchical England, the scholars dissected the quality of the evidence before the House and how to define at least one possible impeachment charge, bribery.
The three law professors invited by Democrats said that Trump’s behavior was not only an egregious abuse of his power for personal gain, but the textbook definition of the kind of conduct that the nation’s founders sought to guard against when they drafted the impeachment clause of the Constitution.
“If what we’re talking about is not impeachable, then nothing is impeachable,” Michael J. Gerhardt, a professor at the University of North Carolina, told the panel. “This is precisely the misconduct that the framers created the Constitution, including impeachment, to protect against.”
But a fourth witness, Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University, cautioned House Democrats against rushing into an impeachment based on an incomplete set of facts and overly broad standards. He conceded that the president’s conduct may have been impeachable, but said Democrats risked tainting the validity of the Constitution’s only remedy for grave presidential misconduct outside an election.
“I am concerned about lowering impeachment standards to fit a paucity of evidence and an abundance of anger,” he said. “To impeach a president on such a record would be to expose every future president to the same type of inchoate impeachment.”
In offering the argument, Turley, who said he had not voted for Trump and did not condone his behavior, handed Republicans what could be a potent counterpoint to put to a divided public.
The dispute unfolded as members of both parties braced for a historic confrontation over Trump’s impeachment.
“Are you ready?” Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., asked a roomful of Democrats meeting behind closed doors Wednesday morning before the Judiciary Committee’s proceedings began. They were, the lawmakers answered in unison, according to people in attendance who discussed the session on the condition of anonymity to describe a private gathering.
Nearby, Vice President Mike Pence delivered his own battle cry to Republicans at their weekly conference meeting. “Turn up the heat” on House Democrats, he instructed, according to an official familiar with his comments who spoke about them on the condition of anonymity.
The panel invited lawyers for Trump to participate in Wednesday’s hearing, but they declined, citing what they called an inherently unfair process, and instead huddled privately with Senate Republicans over lunch to discuss a likely Senate trial. PAT Cipollone, the White House counsel, told senators that the president was eager to present a case for his defense in the Senate, should the House vote to impeach him.
Across the Capitol at the Judiciary Committee, the scholars debated whether Trump’s actions met the standards of impeachment laid out in the Constitution, which says a president can be removed for “treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors.”
Noah Feldman, a professor at Harvard, argued that Trump’s decision to withhold a White House meeting and military assistance from Ukraine while he demanded political favors from its president was a classic impeachable abuse of power.
“The essential definition of high crimes and misdemeanors is the abuse of office,” he said. “The framers considered the office of the presidency to be a public trust.”
Pamela S. Karlan, a Stanford law professor, went further, arguing that Trump’s actions toward Ukraine could constitute another offense outlined in the Constitution: bribery. She defined that offense as “when an official solicited, received or offered a personal favor or benefit to influence official action.”
“If you conclude that he asked for the investigation of Vice President Biden and his son for political reasons, that is to aid his reelection, then, yes, you have bribery here,” Karlan said.
But Turley argued that Democrats were tarnishing the very concept of impeachment by sloppily applying what should be an ironclad set of standards. He said Democrats and the other witnesses were interpreting the concept of bribery too broadly to describe Trump’s conduct.
“This isn’t improvisational jazz — close enough is not good enough,” Turley said. “If you’re going to accuse a president of bribery, you need to make it stick, because you’re trying to remove a duly elected president of the United States.”
Turley also disputed that Trump could be fairly charged with obstruction of Congress. Without going to court to ask a judge to enforce their subpoenas, he argued, Democrats had a case that lacked important validation and could even be an abuse of the House’s power.
Within the first half-hour of the hearing, it was clear that the proceedings had entered a more cantankerous stage. The panel, stacked with some of the House’s most ideologically progressive and conservative lawmakers, lived up to its reputation. Republicans repeatedly sought to halt the proceedings with parliamentary demands, while the Democrats pressed forward.
“President Trump welcomed foreign interference in the 2016 election,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., the Judiciary Committee’s chairman, trying to establish a web of misconduct by Trump beyond Ukraine. “He demanded it for the 2020 election.”
Nadler added: “The president has shown us his pattern of conduct. If we do not act to hold him in check — now — President Trump will almost certainly try again to solicit interference in the election for his personal, political benefit.”
Pressing his colleagues to “stand behind the oath you have taken,” Nadler said, “Our democracy depends on it.”
Questioning the witnesses, Democrats hinted at what articles of impeachment they are considering. They included abuse of power and bribery related to the Ukraine matter and obstruction of justice stemming from Trump’s attempts to impede the investigation by Robert Mueller, the special counsel who investigated the campaign’s ties to Russian election interference. They also appeared to be building a case to charge Trump with obstruction of Congress for his refusal to allow aides to testify in the impeachment inquiry and a blockade on documentary evidence requested by the House.
Republicans on the panel, some of Trump’s most ardent defenders, sought to portray the case against him as a political hit job. And they disputed forcefully that Democrats had proved that Trump directed a pressure campaign on Ukraine.
“This is not an impeachment,” said Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga. “This is simply a railroad job, and today is a waste of time.”
Trump, in Britain for the 70th anniversary of NATO, called impeachment “a dirty word that should only be used in special occasions.” When the hearing concluded, his spokeswoman dismissed the proceedings as a “sham process,” proclaimed the president’s innocence, and branded the opinions of the three legal scholars called by Democrats as the product of “political bias.”
The Judiciary Committee is expected to convene additional hearings before it drafts and debates impeachment articles. In the coming days, the panel will almost certainly hear a formal presentation of evidence from Democratic and Republican lawyers for the Intelligence Committee on the conclusions of their investigation into the Ukraine matter.
The panel could also hold another session to allow Trump’s lawyers to issue a formal defense, including by calling witnesses, if the White House requests it. Nadler has given the president and his team until Friday to decide whether to participate. Democrats must also decide whether to grant Republicans a minority day of hearings they formally requested Wednesday.
As the marathon session wore on, tensions flared between lawmakers and even the witnesses.
Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., sought to undercut the scholars invited by the Democrats, reading aloud critical statements they had made about Trump and accusing them of setting aside the law in favor of “preconceived notions and bias.” Democrats implied Turley, who argued in favor of Clinton’s impeachment two decades ago, was being disingenuous this time around.
Karlan’s attempt at a pun to make a point about titles of nobility — “The president can name his son Barron; he can’t make him a baron” — drew howls of outrage from the Republicans including Melania Trump, the first lady, who called the invocation of her teenage son’s name “very angry and obviously biased public pandering.”
Karlan, who tangled with Republicans several times during the hearing, interrupted the proceedings to apologize for the remark, saying, “It was wrong of me to do that.” But she added that she wished the president would also apologize for the things that he had done.