As the House Judiciary Committee began hearings to craft articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump, Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) suggested the charges may not be limited to the president’s Ukraine-related acts by raising Trump’s alleged obstruction of the earlier investigation into his 2016 campaign.
Nadler outlined how Trump first sought to coerce Ukraine into helping his 2020 reelection campaign and then obstructed the ensuing investigation. Then the chairman noted this followed a “pattern of conduct.”
“President Trump welcomed foreign interference in the 2016 election,” Nadler said. “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.”
Nadler’s decision to make that link appears to indicate that Democrats are also considering Trump’s obstruction of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation and of Congress’ efforts to follow up on it as the basis for a potential article of impeachment.
Nadler’s statement came during a hearing featuring four constitutional law experts discussing whether Trump’s acts related to Ukraine reached the legal and historical definition of an impeachable offense. During the hearing, Democratic committee counsel Norm Eisen also pressed witnesses as to whether the acts of obstruction alleged by Mueller constituted obstruction of justice.
Three of the four experts argued that the impeachment clause was added to the Constitution to cover abuses of power like Trump’s actions.
“This is precisely the misconduct the framers created the Constitution, including impeachment, in order to protect against,” said Michael Gerhardt, a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law.
George Washington University Law School professor Jonathan Turley, the witness called by the Republican minority, was the lone expert to say that Congress had not yet proven that Trump had committed an impeachable offense.
A majority of the expert witnesses looked at the facts and saw impeachable conduct.
“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 Pamela Karlan, a Stanford Law School professor.
Trump abused “the power of his office that no one else could possibly have used in order to gain an advantage for himself,” said Noah Feldman, a Harvard Law School professor.
The plot to coerce Ukraine into tarring a potential political opponent as corrupt by withholding military aid and a White House meeting met the standard for impeachable offenses as defined at the time the Constitution was written, according to Gerhardt, Karlan and Feldman.
“We know that [the impeachment clause] was designed to reach a president who acts to subvert an election — whether it is the election that brought him into office or an upcoming election where he seeks a second term,” Karlan said.
Turley, the lone dissenter among the legal experts, argued that Trump’s actions were wrong, but that Congress had not heard from enough “fact witnesses” to prove that he committed an impeachable act. He also argued there is not enough evidence to label Trump’s actions toward Ukraine as “bribery.” And he criticized Congress for moving too quickly toward impeachment.
The constitutional scholars were also asked whether it mattered that the president ultimately released the military aid he withheld from Ukraine.
“The fact that [President Richard] Nixon was not ultimately successful in covering up the Watergate break-in was not grounds for not impeaching him,” Feldman said. “The attempt itself was the impeachable act.”
They also agreed that Trump’s refusal to obey subpoenas for documents and witness testimony is unprecedented, constitutes obstruction of justice, and is impeachable in and of itself.
“A president who will not cooperate in impeachment is putting himself above the law,” Feldman said.
The alleged obstruction of the Mueller investigation also met the standard of an impeachable offense, they argued.
“This evidence that’s been put forward by Mr. Mueller and is in the public record is very strong evidence of obstruction of justice,” Gerhardt said.
As the House Intelligence Committee’s GOP members had earlier done, the Judiciary Committee’s Republicans defended the president’s actions and sought to cast the hearing as a pointless show for TV and the impeachment investigation as an empty political vendetta against the president.
“You just don’t like the guy,” said Rep. Doug Collins (Ga.), the committee’s ranking Republican.
Democrats have wanted to impeach Trump ever since he took office, Collins claimed. (In fact, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) resisted calls for impeachment from her caucus until the intelligence community whistleblower’s complaint came to light.)
Collins derided the witnesses by suggesting their testimony would show why few Americans want to go to law school. (Collins is a graduate of Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School.) He also suggested the professors could not have read the testimony and reports from the House Intelligence Committee and, therefore, their opinions were worthless.
This was met by an angry rebuke from Karlan in an off-the-cuff remark during her opening statement.
“I would like to say to you, sir, I read transcripts of every witness who appeared in live hearings. I would not speak about these things without reviewing the facts. I am insulted by the suggestion as a law professor that I don’t care about those facts,” Karlan said.
Republicans also attempted to muck up the hearings with repeated parliamentary inquiries seeking to subpoena both the whistleblower and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and to delay the hearing. They were all defeated on party-line votes.
Before the hearing, House Democrats held a caucus meeting where Schiff presented the findings of the Intelligence Committee’s impeachment report, which was greeted with an ovation.
“This is a solemn thing. It wasn’t a lot of rah-rah cheers,” Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) said.
Pelosi “spoke about the gravity and somber nature of this moment,” according to a senior Democratic aide. The speaker then asked the lawmakers to discuss what they were hearing from their constituents at home. Caucus members affirmed their support for continuing the impeachment proceedings.
No member of the caucus challenged the investigation or suggested that “this is the wrong thing, we can’t go forward,” Takano added.
“It seems like there’s a lot of unity among the caucus on this point,” Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) said.
Jennifer Bendery contributed reporting.