Washington, DC – As momentum gained in the United States House of Representatives for the impeachment of President Donald Trump, a group of three constitutional scholars told a key committee the president committed impeachable offences in pressuring Ukraine for a domestic political favour.
A fourth legal expert dissented, however, saying Democrats are moving too fast and should build a broader base of evidence against Trump if they are to seek his removal from office.
“On the basis of the testimony and the evidence presented to the House, President Trump has committed impeachable high crimes and misdemeanours by abusing the office of the presidency,” Noah Feldman, a law professor at Harvard Law School, told the House Judiciary Committee.
“Specifically, President Trump has abused his office by corruptly soliciting President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine to announce investigations of his political rivals to gain personal advantage including in the 2020 presidential election,” Feldman said.
The House is moving rapidly towards a vote to impeach Trump later this month. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat, met privately with members of her party on Wednesday morning to rally support for impeachment, one day after release of a 300-page report describing Trump’s pressure campaign on Ukraine.
Meanwhile, Vice President Mike Pence met House Republicans, urging them to get tougher in their criticism of Democrats, and White House counsel Pat Cipollone met across the Capitol with Senate Republicans to talk about defending Trump in a Senate trial, according to reports.
Trump in London abruptly cancelled a planned news conference at the NATO leadership conference and returned early to Washington where he now confronts the rising challenge to his leadership that impeachment represents. Trump denies any wrongdoing and has labelled the impeachment inquiry a “witch-hunt”.
“Never before in the history of the republic have we been forced to consider the conduct of a president who appears to have solicited personal political favours from a foreign government,” said Jerrold Nadler, the Democrat chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
“When we apply the Constitution to those facts, if it is true that Trump has committed an impeachable offence or multiple, repeated impeachable offences then we must move swiftly to do our duty and move forward to charge him accordingly,” Nadler said.
‘Attacked each of the Constitution’s safeguards’
The Democrats’ investigation of Trump centres on a July 25 telephone call the president had with Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelenskyy in which Trump asked for “a favour”. Trump wanted Zelenskyy to open investigations into Biden and his son Hunter, who was a board member on the Ukrainian gas company Burisma, and into a debunked conspiracy theory that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that hacked the US election in 2016. There has been no evidence of wrongdoing by the Bidens.
At the time of the call, the Trump administration was withholding $391 million in congressionally mandated military and financial aid from Ukraine.
After hearing from 12 witnesses in 35 hours of public testimony, Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee issued a report on Tuesday alleging Trump abused the power of his office by pressuring Ukraine and then sought to cover it up by blocking Congress’s access to witness and information.
“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,” Pamela Karlan, a law professor at Stanford University Law School, told Wednesday’s House Judiciary panel hearing.
“It shows a president who delayed meeting a foreign leader and providing assistance that Congress and his own advisors agreed serves our national interest in promoting democracy and then limiting Russian aggression,” Karlan said.
Doug Collins, the top Republican on Judiciary Committee, lamented the panel’s process saying Democrats were moving to impeach Trump for political reasons.
“We are here, no fact witnesses, simply a rubber stamp,” Collins said.
Democrats on the committee rejected Republican motions to require Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, a Democrat, and the whistle-blower, who made the complaint that prompted the inquiry, to testify.
President Trump’s lawyers had been invited to attend Wednesday’s hearing but declined the opportunity, Nadler said.
Jonathan Turley, a constitutional law professor at George Washington University Law School, supported the Republican view in his testimony.
While Trump’s telephone call with Zelenskyy “was anything but perfect”, Turley said the Democrats’ investigation so far had produced a “wafer-thin” body of evidence and their process was “slipshod”.
“This is not how you impeach an American president,” Turley said.
Democrats are obligated to allow Trump’s appeals to the courts to play out all the way to the US Supreme Court and they should broaden their investigation to fill-in missing information or identify specific crimes Trump may have committed, Turley added. “You need to stick the landing on the quid pro quo.”
Turley was in the minority among the panel of constitutional law experts appearing for the Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.
Michael Gerhardt, a law professor at the University of North Carolina compared the context and gravity of Trump’s conduct to the impeachment of President Richard Nixon in 1973.
“The fact that we can easily transfer the Articles of Impeachment against President Nixon to the actions of this president speaks volumes. And that does not even include the most serious national security concerns and election interference on the part of this president,” Gerhardt said.
“I cannot help but conclude that this president has attacked each of the Constitution’s safeguards against establishing a monarchy in this country,” he said.
Wednesday’s hearing marked a turning point in the impeachment inquiry of Trump. The House Judiciary Committee is now determining whether to draw up and approve articles of impeachment, which if approved, would be voted on by the full House. If the House votes to impeach Trump, a trial would be held in the Senate.