Three constitutional experts told a congressional hearing that U.S. President Donald Trump committed impeachable offences by soliciting Ukraine to interfere in next year’s election and obstructing investigations into his conduct.
Democrats called the legal scholars Wednesday to bolster the party’s case against Mr. Trump as it races to finish the impeachment process before Christmas.
The hearing is the first by the House of Representatives’ judiciary committee, which will decide whether to draft articles of impeachment, and often devolved into the same partisan fighting that marked last month’s sessions of the intelligence panel. That committee accused Mr. Trump of wide-ranging abuse of power in a scathing report this week, making it all but inevitable the Democrats will charge forward with the impeachment process.
And in a twist Wednesday, committee members suggested they may go beyond the Ukraine scandal and try to also impeach Mr. Trump for attempting to shut down the previous investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
The U.S. Constitution sets no strict legal standard for impeachment – it says only that the process is meant to deal with “high crimes and misdemeanors” – and Democrats hoped to use the experts to establish that the current effort to oust Mr. Trump is legally sound.
“President Trump has committed impeachable high crimes and misdemeanors by corruptly abusing the office of the presidency,” Harvard Law professor Noah Feldman said bluntly in his opening statement. “If we cannot impeach a president who abuses his office for personal advantage, we no longer live in a democracy."
Prof. Feldman argued that Mr. Trump’s July 25 telephone call with Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky, in which Mr. Trump asked Mr. Zelensky to investigate Joe Biden and the Democratic National Committee, is by itself impeachable because the President used the power of his office for his own political gain.
The President’s withholding of military aid to Ukraine and a White House meeting for Mr. Zelensky, which U.S. officials have testified were done to pressure Kyiv for the investigations, are further reasons to impeach, Prof. Feldman said.
Pamela Karlan of Stanford University told the hearing that one reason the drafters of the Constitution created the impeachment provision was specifically to deal with presidents who tried to rig elections. “A candidate for president should resist foreign interference in our elections, not demand it. If we are to keep faith with the Constitution and our Republic, President Trump must be held to account,” she said.
Michael Gerhardt, of the University of North Carolina, went a step further, arguing Congress has a duty to impeach Mr. Trump to assert limits on presidential power – particularly Mr. Trump’s efforts to stonewall the impeachment inquiry by ordering all government officials to refuse to testify before it. “If Congress fails to impeach here, then the impeachment process has lost all meaning,” Prof. Gerhardt said.
The lone expert brought in by the panel’s Republicans, Jonathan Turley of George Washington University, did not try to defend Mr. Trump’s actions, but said Democrats had not proven they met a criminal standard. “This isn’t improvisational jazz. Close enough isn’t good enough. If you are going to accuse the President of bribery you need to make it stick,” Prof. Turley said.
Judiciary committee chairman Jerry Nadler linked Mr. Trump’s stonewalling of Congress on Ukraine with his “obstruction” of Mr. Mueller. In his report this spring, Mr. Mueller recounted incidents in which Mr. Trump unsuccessfully tried to get Mr. Mueller fired while he was investigating the Kremlin’s campaign to tip the 2016 election.
“President Trump welcomed foreign interference in the 2016 election. He demanded it for the 2020 election," Mr. Nadler said. “In both cases, he did everything in his power to prevent the American people from learning the truth.”
The day often became tense, as Republican members of the committee interrupted the session with objections and motions to suspend the inquiry.
Shouting and bouncing in his chair, Doug Collins, the committee’s top GOP member, derided the very premise of the hearing, contending that the experts did not know anything about the evidence in the case. “We got law professors here – what a start of a party,” he said.
“I’m insulted by the suggestion that as a law professor I don’t care about those facts,” Prof. Karlan fired back.