Legal scholars: Conduct like Trump's is the reason Congress has impeachment power

Analysis: The point isn't to punish the president, experts told lawmakers Wednesday, but to protect the country from further damage.

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By Jonathan Allen

WASHINGTON — There's no question that President Donald Trump violated the Constitution's limits on his power or that the House should respond by impeaching him, three legal scholars told the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.

That's exactly what majority Democrats were hoping to hear, and it's the testimony they will cite as the House moves toward drafting articles of impeachment against Trump based on his solicitation of Ukraine to launch investigations with political implications in the U.S. and possibly other matters.

"How we respond will determine the character of our democracy for generations," Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., a member of the Judiciary Committee, said.

Ultimately, three of the witnesses portrayed Trump as abusing the powers of his office for personal gain — and in contravention of U.S. interests — in ways envisioned by the founding fathers when they gave Congress the authority to remove the chief executive. The reason to impeach Trump isn't to punish him, law professors Pamela Karlan of Stanford, Noah Feldman of Harvard and Michael Gerhardt of the University of North Carolina said, but to prevent further damage.

Karlan and Gerhardt leaned hard into the idea that Trump sought to deprive Americans of their basic democratic rights by pursuing the establishment of political investigations in Ukraine that would benefit his re-election campaign. At the same time, Feldman emphasized Trump's decision to freeze aid to Ukraine, a U.S. partner at war with Russia, as a dangerous and impeachable subversion of national interests.

"If you don’t impeach a president who has done what this president has done ... then what you’re saying is that 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.”

They all said Trump's actions met the threshold for "high crimes and misdemeanors" and for "bribery" under the Constitution's impeachment clause.

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A fourth witness, George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley, argued that Democrats' impeachment push was being rushed at the expense of fact-gathering and that the House Intelligence Committee's end of the investigation had not produced clear and convincing evidence of impeachable offenses by Trump.

"Fast is not good for impeachment," he said.

Democrats weren't expecting Turley to be helpful to their cause, and they largely avoided asking him questions during the marathon hearing, which began at 10 a.m. ET and dragged across more than eight hours with occasional breaks for lawmakers to participate in votes on the House floor.

Instead, they relied on the other three legal experts to weigh in on the Constitution, the evidence produced in the Intelligence Committee's part of the inquiry and how they fit together to explain the case for impeaching Trump.

Gerhardt said "the record compiled thus far shows that the president has committed several impeachable offenses, including bribery, abuse of power in soliciting a personal favor from a foreign leader to benefit his political campaign, obstructing Congress and obstructing justice."

He pointed to the period when the Constitution was being drafted and its framers' determination to ensure that the new nation's citizenry would not be subjects of a monarch after having won the Revolutionary War against King George III.

"In this country, no one is king," he said, adding that Trump has "attacked each of the Constitution’s safeguards against establishing a monarchy in this country."

Despite a handful of fiery exchanges among lawmakers and between members of Congress and witnesses, the hearing was relatively sedate for a committee that is typically among the most aggressively partisan in Congress. But Karlan's invocation of Trump's youngest son, in making a point about the limits on presidential power, invited strong criticism from first lady Melania Trump, the Trump campaign and GOP members of the committee.

"Contrary to what President Trump has said, Article 2 does not give him the power to do anything he wants,” Karlan said. “The Constitution says there can be no titles of nobility. So while the president can name his son Barron, he can’t make him a baron.”

Melania Trump responded on Twitter, saying Karlan "should be ashamed" of her “obviously biased public pandering" in referring to Barron Trump.

"A minor child deserves privacy and should be kept out of politics," the first lady wrote.

Karlan took a moment during the hearing to offer an apology.

"It was wrong of me to do that," she said, adding that the president "should apologize" for the things he's done wrong.

Republicans repeatedly noted that top Democrats, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., had said in the past that one test for impeachment would be whether there was bipartisan support for it.

"You said that once the evidence is laid out that the opposition will admit 'they had to do it,'" Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Ariz., said, addressing Nadler. "That has not happened."

Lesko is right that most Republicans in the country remain unified behind Trump, and not a single member of the GOP in Congress has yet broken ranks with him. House Republicans voted unanimously against a resolution setting the rules for the impeachment inquiry, and all of the GOP members of the Intelligence panel voted against its report, which was approved Tuesday.

While a handful of Republican senators have distanced themselves from some of the Trump conduct under investigation by the House, none of them have gone so far as to suggest they would vote to remove him from office.

While Wednesday brought the House Democrats one day closer to impeaching Trump on the calendar — and the witnesses provided them legal opinions that they will use as exhibits for their case — there was no reason to think the hearing had changed any minds on Capitol Hill.