Is evidence against Trump ‘wafer thin’ or ‘undisputed’? Clash of scholars and realities at impeachment hearing
WASHINGTON -- The House Judiciary Committee opened a new chapter in impeachment on Wednesday, at a contentious hearing featuring legal scholars tutoring lawmakers on standards for corruption and abuse of power that would merit removal from office.
"It does not matter that President Trump got caught and ultimately released the funds that Ukraine so desperately needed. It matters that he enlisted a foreign government to intervene in our elections in the first place,” argued chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y.
Republicans bristled at the proceedings, accusing Democrats of seeking to railroad a president out of political animus.
None offered any substantive defense of the actions uncovered by the House intelligence committee in the past month. In a series of hearings, diplomats, military officers and career national security experts who defied Trump’s orders to snub Congress testified that he pressured Ukraine’s government to announce a corruption probe targeting Democratic rival Joe Biden, using military aide and a coveted White House summit as leverage.
Three constitutional scholars invited by Democrats provided testimony backing the push for impeachment.
“The president’s serious misconduct, including bribery, soliciting a personal favor from a foreign leader in exchange for his exercise of power, and obstructing justice and Congress are worse than the misconduct of any prior president,” testified Michael Gerhardt, a University of North Carolina law professor widely recognized as a preeminent expert on impeachment.
He argued that Trump’s conduct with Ukraine, and his efforts to stymie the congressional inquiry by refusing to turn over any records and barring aides from testifying, easily met the test for removal from office.
The lone GOP witness, George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley, took issue with that. He asserted that impeachment based on the Ukraine allegations would not be in keeping with precedent, and that the evidence against Trump is “wafer thin.”
“So if I were to summarize your testimony: No bribery, no extortion, no obstruction of justice, no abuse of power,” Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Heath, asked as the hearing passed the six hour mark.
“Not on this record,” he said.
Partisan rancor was running high throughout the hearing, and at one point Stanford law professor Pamela Karlan, a Democratic witness whose dim views of Trump were apparent, invoked his son as she cast Trump as a would-be despot who viewed himself as above the law.
“While the president can name his son Barron, he can’t make him a baron," she quipped. Hours later she apologized, though grudgingly, saying that Trump should apologize for his own misdeeds.
By then, his campaign had called it “disgusting” to violate the privacy of a 13-year-old. First lady Melania Trump tweeted to her 13 million followers that “a minor child deserves privacy and should be kept out of politics. Pamela Karlan, you should be ashamed of your very angry and obviously biased public pandering, and using a child to do it.”
Rep. Al Green, a Houston Democrat who has crusaded for impeachment from the outset of Trump’s presidency, sent colleagues a memo arguing that he should also be impeached for “racist, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, transphobic, xenophobic language instigating enmity and inciting violence within our society.”
Two months ago when House Democrats agreed to open an impeachment inquiry amid revelations of a July 25 phone call on which Trump pressured his Ukrainian counterpart for political favors, Green said he felt vindicated. But as the House barrels towards adopting articles of impeachment that gloss over his unrelated complaints about Trump, Green’s frustration has boiled over.
On Tuesday, the House intelligence committee voted on party lines to approve a damning 300-page report accusing Trump of abuse of office by trying to trade official acts for a political favor.
Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Tyler, a member of the Judiciary Committee, used his five minutes to complain that he hadn’t had time to read that report before Wednesday’s hearing. He also demanded testimony from a set of fact witnesses, rather than legal experts, among them Biden and a pair of former national security aides from the Obama era. Conservative conspiracy theories link those former aides to the whistleblower, a CIA analyst who flagged concerns about the July 25 phone call, setting in motion the impeachment push.
Their testimony, Gohmert insisted, would bring the assault on Trump “to a screeching halt.”
As Gohmert demanded witnesses unrelated to Trump’s actions, he glossed over Democrats complaints that Trump had blocked testimony from a litany of eyewitnesses to his meetings, conversations and orders regarding the alleged Ukraine misdeeds, including acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, former National Security Advisor John Bolton and former Energy Secretary Rick Perry.
Gohmert took issue with Nadler’s assertion that the facts are “undisputed,” insisting that “they are absolutely disputed, and the evidence is a bunch of hearsay on hearsay.”
The president has touted the solidarity shown by House Republicans.
Despite Democrats’ hopes that he would break ranks, Rep. Will Hurd of San Antonio -- a former CIA undercover officer who had criticized Trump’s actions and is not seeking reelection--voted with fellow Republicans.
Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., chalked it up to Hurd’s "tremendous fear of antagonizing the Trump base” and lamented that even he had set aside his oath to defend the Constitution for political expedience.
“In the case of Will Hurd, he's also said he wants to run for president. And I think that's really all you need to know about where he's coming from," Schiff said on NPR.
Four Texans serve on the Judiciary Committee. Along with Gohmert, fellow Republican Rep. John Ratcliffe of Heath, who also serves on Schiff’s committee, was a vocal defender during last month’s hearings.
On the Democratic side, Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee and Sylvia Garcia of Houston serve on Judiciary, as does Rep. Veronica Escobar of El Paso.
“It is fair to say that the president’s actions are unprecedented,” said Jackson Lee, adding that three of her uncles served in World War II. “I can’t imagine them being on the battlefield. Needing arms and food.” And before sending help, “the general says, `Do me a favor.’ ”
As Nadler recounted, "On July 25, President Trump called President Zelenskiy of Ukraine and, in President Trump’s words, asked him for a favor… in the form of an investigation of his political adversaries by a foreign government. ...To obtain that private, political advantage, President Trump withheld both an official White House meeting from the newly elected president of a fragile democracy and vital military aid from a vulnerable ally.”
Karlan testified that the Constitution is intentionally vague on the sorts of acts that would rise to the level of impeachment.
“They couldn’t list all of the crimes that might be committed… They couldn’t necessarily have imagined wire-tapping, because we had no wires in 1789,” she said.
Harvard law professor Noah Feldman testified that the framers of the Constitution included an impeachment provision as a safeguard against a president who would corruptly use official powers for personal benefit.
He noted that in Britain at the time, Parliament could remove the king’s ministers but not the king. And they were determined not to leave presidents immune to consequences for misdeeds.
“President Trump’s conduct clearly constitutes high crimes and misdemeanors,” Feldman testified. Trump “abused his office” by mounting a pressure campaign against Ukraine in order to secure a public announcement of a corruption investigation of a political rival.
“The words `abuse of office’ are not mystical or magical,” he said, adding that the president abuses his office when he uses his power to advance personal or political interests. “And that is what the evidence indicates.”