WASHINGTON - Three constitutional scholars summoned by Democrats are testified Wednesday that President Donald Trump’s conduct toward Ukraine rises to the level of impeachment, as the inquiry moves to a new phase with the first hearing by the House Judiciary Committee.
Another law school professor, tapped by Republicans, cautioned against impeachment.
The focus of the impeachment probe has shifted from the House Intelligence Committee, which voted along party lines Tuesday to approve a 300-page report that concluded Trump had "compromised national security to advance his personal political interests."
At the heart of the Democrats' case is the allegation that Trump tried to leverage a White House meeting and military aid, sought by Ukraine in the face of Russian military aggression, to pressure President Volodymyr Zelensky to launch investigations of former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter, as well as an unfounded theory that Kyiv conspired with Democrats to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., opened his panel's first impeachment hearing by dropping a hint that he would seek multiple charges against Trump, covering "all of the acts that most concerned the Framers."
The list of impeachable offenses envisioned in the Constitution has been repeated by several Democratic leaders in recent days, including: "treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors."
Nadler argued that there was ample "precedent for recommending impeachment" on the grounds of obstruction of justice and obstruction of Congress, noting that President Richard Nixon had given Congress recordings during his impeachment, and "former President Clinton his blood." (Clinton provided a blood sample during the investigation that ultimately led to his impeachment.)
Trump's "level of obstruction is without precedent," Nadler argued.
The three witnesses chosen by Democrats for Wednesday's hearing were Harvard Law School professor Noah Feldman, Stanford University professor Pamela Karlan and University of North Carolina law professor Michael Gerhardt. Republicans invited George Washington University professor Jonathan Turley.
The legal experts were at odds over whether Trump had broken written laws and whether the courts have to weigh in before Congress could legitimately conclude he was guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors.
Turley argued that the evidence against Trump fell short of proving he had committed an act of bribery, and that Democrats should have taken their subpoenas to the courts to enforce before launching impeachment proceedings.
Gerhardt rejected the latter argument, saying Trump’s “refusal to comply with the subpoenas is an independent event that is apart from the courts.”
"It's a direct assault on the legitimacy of this inquiry," he said.
Feldman, meanwhile, argued that Turley's point about bribery discounted the fact that the Constitution is the highest law in the land and it defines bribery as a crime.
"If the House believes that the president solicited something of value, then that would constitute bribery under the meaning of the Constitution, and it would not be lawless," Feldman said.
Turley disagreed, arguing that it was a "circular argument to say 'well, the Constitution is law.'"
"It doesn't define the crime, it references the crime," he said.
Turley warned House Democrats against moving too fast on impeachment, moving ahead on a partisan basis and moving to oust Trump on a "narrow" set of issues only focused on Ukraine. "Impeachments require a certain period of saturation and maturation," Turley told lawmakers. "That is, the public has to catch up."
Gerhardt delivered one of the most memorable lines of the hearing in response to Democratic questioning - a line that quickly took off on social media.
"I just want to stress that if what we're talking about is not impeachable, then nothing is impeachable," Gerhardt said. "This is precisely the misconduct that the Framers created a Constitution including impeachment to protect against."
Gerhart added that if Congress takes "no action, if Congress concludes they're going to give a pass to the president here . . . every other president will say, 'OK, then I can do the same thing,' and the boundaries will just evaporate."
He called this possibility a "danger to all of us."
The remark came in response to a question about whether Trump committed bribery, which Gerhardt and the other experts invited by the Democrats agreed that he did.
Karlan also stressed that giving Trump a pass would encourage future presidents to undermine elections and U.S. national security for personal benefit.
"Because this is an abuse that cuts to the heart of democracy, you need to ask yourselves, if you don't impeach a president who has done what this president has done . . . then what you're saying is, it's fine to go ahead and do this again," Karlan said. "It's your responsibility to make sure that all Americans get to vote in a free and fair election next November."
Karlan sought to distinguish a president from a king after Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, prompted her to articulate how Trump’s power is different from a monarch’s, if at all. The president has said Article II of the Constitution allows him to do, essentially, whatever he wants.
Karlan said that was not so and gave one example that won her applause: the Constitution says there can't be any noble titles in the U.S.
"While the president can name his son Barron, he can't make him a baron," she said.
As Washington focuses on impeachment, Trump met with other NATO leaders on Wednesday in London, before heading back to Washington. He is scheduled to return to the White House on Wednesday night.
Earlier Wednesday, Trump's 2020 presidential campaign manager, Brad Parscale, mocked the three witnesses called by Democrats Wednesday, labeling them "the Three Stooges" in a tweet.
- - -
The Washington Post’s Rachael Bade, Mike DeBonis, Donna Cassata, Karoun Demirjian and Else Viebeck contributed to this report.