Committee chairman Rep. Jerry Nadler (L) (D-NY) speaks while committee ranking member Rep. Doug Collins (R) (R-GA) looks up during an impeachment hearing where constitutional scholars testified before the House Judiciary Committee in the Longworth House Office Building on Capitol Hill December 4, 2019 in Washington, DC.
Drew Angerer | Getty Images News | Getty Images
The House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday held its first — and possibly its last — public hearing as part of the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump.
The majority-Democrat panel, led by Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., heard four legal scholars interpret and debate the U.S. Constitution’s standards for impeachment, and whether or not Trump’s efforts toward Ukraine met that legal bar.
The proceeding took on a different shape than two weeks of hearings that came before it in the House Intelligence Committee, where fact witnesses shared firsthand knowledge of Trump’s foreign policy dealings and at times revealed new facts to the public.
The witnesses before the judiciary panel, however, were brought to put Trump’s actions in historical context and to help those lawmakers determine which articles of impeachment — if any — to draft against him.
Democrats on the committee are widely expected to bring articles of impeachment to the full House for a vote, which, if they are passed, would then go to the Senate for a trial.
Most politicos anticipate Trump being impeached in the Democrat-led House, but not removed by the Republican-controlled Senate. And it’s unclear if Wednesday’s hearing strengthened the Democrats’ case.
“In terms of changing votes on the Senate floor, I certainly don’t think so,” said Jeff Robbins, an attorney and former counsel for Democratic senators on multiple investigative committees.
“It’s obvious that the president has the Republicans in Congress in kind of a death grip,” Robbins added. “It’s about brass knuckles at this point.”
Here are the main takeaways from the hearing:
Three witnesses said Trump committed impeachable offenses…
The three witnesses called forward by the Democrats came to the hearing with a near-unanimous conclusion: that Trump’s pressure on Ukraine to announce investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, and a debunked conspiracy theory about the 2016 election, constitutes an impeachable offense.
“On the basis of the testimony and the evidence before the House, President Trump has committed impeachable high crimes and misdemeanors by corruptly abusing the office of the presidency,” said Harvard Law School Professor Noah Feldman.
“The evidence reveals a president who used the powers of his office to demand that a foreign government participate in undermining a competing candidate for the presidency,” said Stanford Law School Professor and ex-Obama administration official Pamela Karlan.
“The record compiled thus far shows the president has committed several impeachable offenses, including bribery, abuse of power and soliciting of personal favor from a foreign leader to benefit himself personally, obstructing justice, and obstructing Congress,” said Michael Gerhardt, a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law.
Democrats’ line of questions for these witnesses centered around what were listed as three possible actions that reach the Constitution’s definition of “high crimes and misdemeanors”: abuse of power, betrayal of the national interest and corruption of elections.
…But one disagreed
Jonathan Turley, a scholar at the George Washington School of Law invited by the Republican committee members, disagreed.
Turley began by noting that he was not a Trump supporter and had voted against him in 2016. But, he went on to say, “I believe this impeachment not only fails to satisfy the standard of past impeachments but would create a dangerous precedent for future impeachments.”
Turley argued that the case against Trump has not been fully investigated, and to move forward and impeach Trump with incomplete information “would expose every future president to the same time of inchoate impeachment.”
Same heat, fewer fireworks
Unlike the Intelligence Committee hearings, there were no bombshells of new information delivered by the witnesses who testified Wednesday. But the judiciary panel still managed to achieve similar levels of partisanship and rhetorical bitterness.
Nadler’s opening statement slammed Trump and stressed the urgency of the impeachment hearings: “We are all aware that the next election is looming—but we cannot wait for the election to address the present crisis. The integrity of that election is the very thing at stake.”
Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., the committee’s ranking Republican, fired back, labeling the entire impeachment probe a “partisan coup d’etat.”
Republicans then put forward a motion calling for Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., to testify. The stunt forced a roll-call vote, which in a 41-member committee takes time, before Democrats voted to table it.
That process repeated when GOP Rep. Guy Reschenthaler put forward a motion to subpoena the whistleblower, whose complaint about Trump’s July 25 call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy led many Democrats to support the impeachment probe.
Karlan challenges Collins…
Karlan quickly established herself as the most forceful voice on the witness panel, when she challenged Collins’ assertion that the legal experts “couldn’t possibly have digested” the 300-page report released Tuesday by Democrat-led House committees.
“Mr. Collins, I would like to say to you sir, that I read transcripts of every one of the witnesses that appeared in the live hearing because I would not speak about these things without reviewing the facts,” she said.
“So I’m insulted by the suggestion that as a law professor I don’t care about those facts.”
…and her joke about Barron Trump gets trashed
Karlan also offered the most striking quip of the hearing, when she made a reference to Trump’s youngest son, 13-year-old Barron, while pushing back on Trump’s extremely broad interpretation of his powers under Article II of the Constitution.
“Contrary to what President Trump has said, Article II does not give him the power to do anything he wants. I’ll just give you one example that shows you difference between him and a king, which is [that] the Constitution says there can be no titles of nobility,” Karlan said.
“So while the president can name his son Barron, he can’t make him a baron,” she added, earning a chuckle from the room.
The line was immediately condemned by Trump’s Republican allies as “disgusting” and “unhinged” — and even garnered a rare, stinging response from first lady Melania Trump.
Karlan “should be ashamed of your very angry and obviously biased public pandering, and using a child to do it,” the first lady tweeted.
Late in the hearing, Karlan apologized. “It was wrong of me to do that. i wish the president would apologize, obviously, for the things that he’s done,” she said, but “I regret having said that.”