Analysis after the Judiciary Committee impeachment hearing

Image: Noah Feldman, Pamela Karlan, Jonathan Turley, Michael Gerhardt
Harvard Law School professor Noah Feldman, Stanford Law School professor Pamela Karlan, University of North Carolina Law School professor Michael Gerhardt and George Washington University Law School professor Jonathan Turley are sworn in before testifying during a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee on Dec. 4, 2019.Alex Brandon / AP

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The House Judiciary Committee kicked off its first hearing of the impeachment inquiry on Wednesday with an exploration of the constitutional grounds for impeachment, including what constitutes bribery, high crimes and misdemeanors and whether President Donald Trump's actions meet those definitions.

The witnesses included Harvard law professor Noah Feldman; Stanford law professor Pamela Karlan; University of North Carolina law professor Michael Gerhardt; and George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley. The first three witnesses were asked to testify by the committee's Democrats, and Turley was called by the panel's Republican members.

Highlights from the Judiciary hearing:

Read our 10 takeaways from the impeachment hearing so far — in plain English

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  • There has been talk of originalism, the Founding Fathers, King George III and the Secret Treaty of Dover — and someone used the word "necromancy."

GOP lawmakers trash impeachment process

  • Rep. Gaetz and witness Karlan trade barbs, while Rep. Buck questions whether other presidents should have been impeached.

Three of four witnesses say Trump committed impeachable offenses

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House Democrats united, discusses articles in closed door meeting

House Democrats are unified on moving forward with impeachment, according to multiple Democrats who attended a closed-door meeting Wednesday morning. Schiff received a raucous standing ovation as he stepped up to the microphone, before he uttered a single word, according to two lawmakers in the room. It was “a powerful moment,” one lawmaker said, noting that their phones were confiscated to prevent leaks and allow members to speak openly. 

After Schiff summarized the report that was released on Tuesday, he said articles of impeachment would likely center on abuse of power as it relates to Ukraine and cover-up, according to three lawmakers at the meeting. But all three members note that they were told no final decisions have been made. As for including articles that involve the Mueller report, two lawmakers said there was no discussion on it and again noted that no decisions have been made. 

The implication was that the House would vote on articles before the Dec. 20 recess, according to two members. But one member notes that they were told to "not make plans" on Dec. 21 and Dec. 22.

Democrats were also told that they will not wait for other witnesses to come forward, such as John Bolton, according to two lawmakers in the room.

And Speaker Pelosi reminded the members of the seriousness of the endeavor and she noted that she has never whipped or asked members where they stand on the issue, according to a lawmaker and confirmed by a senior Democratic aid.

ANALYSIS: A master class in the Framers’ thinking on impeachment

The opening statements made for a master class in the Framers’ thinking in creating a democratic republic that limited the power of its president.

The witnesses smoothly synthesized American history, Western political thought and the Constitution, and in applying Trump’s conduct to the latter, three of the four of them concluded that he not only has met the bar for impeachment, but far exceeded it (Jonathan Turley, of George Washington University, disagreed).

The president has “attacked each of the Constitution’s safeguards against establishing a monarchy in this country,” Michael Gerhardt, a law professor from the University of North Carolina, testified, adding that if the House fails to impeach Trump, impeachment has “lost all meaning.”

And Democrats are hopeful that part of the challenge for them in convincing more of the public to support Trump’s impeachment is simply one of a shared understanding of how his actions fit into the Framers’ intentions when only about one-quarter of the citizenry can identify the three branches of government.

Gerhardt: If you don't impeach Trump, impeachment has no meaning whatsoever

Michael Gerhardt, a University of North Carolina law professor and Democratic witness, said that if Congress doesn't impeach Trump, impeachment has no meaning at all.

"No misconduct is more antithetical to our democracy, and nothing injures the American people more than a president who uses his power to weaken their authority under the Constitution as well as the authority of the Constitution itself,"  he said. "No member of this House should ever want his or her legacy to be having left unchecked a president’s assaults on our Constitution."

"If Congress fails to impeach here, then the impeachment process has lost all meaning, and, along with that, our Constitution’s carefully crafted safeguards against the establishment of a king on American soil," he added. "No one, not even the president, is beyond the reach of our Constitution and our laws."

White House goes after Feldman, Karlan during opening statements

An official working on White House impeachment strategy is, as expected, going after Feldman and Karlan for their past comments on impeachment.

In the midst of Karlan’s fiery opening statement, the official said her "commentary is clouded by anti-Trump bias," saying she "has made no effort to hide her clear partisan bias against the President."

And on Feldman, the focus is on what he’s said before about presidential misconduct, including his issue with the president’s controversial pardon of Joe Arpaio.

Texas Rep. Green disappointed no persons of color testifying

Karlan compares Trump's Ukraine efforts to holding hurricane aid hostage

In her fiery opening statement, Karlan suggested that Trump's withholding of aid from Ukraine was akin to holding back hurricane aid from a governor until he or she did Trump's bidding.

"What happened in 2016 was bad enough: there is widespread agreement that Russian operatives intervened to manipulate our political process," Karlan said. "But that distortion is magnified if a sitting president abuses the powers of his office actually to invite foreign intervention. To see why, imagine living in a part of Louisiana or Texas that’s prone to devastating hurricanes and flooding. What would you think if, when your governor asked the federal government for the disaster assistance that Congress has provided, the president responded: 'I would like you to do us a favor. I’ll meet with you and send the disaster relief once you brand my opponent a criminal.'?"

"Wouldn’t you know in your gut that such a president had abused his office, betrayed the national interest, and tried to corrupt the electoral process?" she added. "I believe the evidentiary record shows wrongful acts on that scale here."

Trump "did this to strong-arm a foreign leader into smearing one of the president’s opponents in our ongoing election season," she said. "That is not politics as usual — at least not in the United States or any other mature democracy. It is, instead, a cardinal reason why the Constitution contains an impeachment power. Put simply, a candidate for president should resist foreign interference in our elections, not demand it."

Trump says he isn't tuning in for the hearing

President Trump — who is currently in the U.K. for a two-day NATO meeting — says he has not had time to tune in to today's hearing. 

"I don't think too many people are going to watch, because it'll be boring," he told the press pool. 

Law professor rips Republican: 'Insulted' by 'suggestion I don't care about the facts'

Stanford law professor Pamela Karlan, one of Democrats' witnesses, took aim at earlier remarks from Collins in her opening statement, saying she was "insulted by" the ranking member's "suggestion I don't care about the facts."

She said she read each of the impeachment inquiry transcripts before testifying and excoriated Collins for suggesting that she was simply acting on partisan preferences.

"Everything I read on those occasions tells me that when President Trump invited, indeed demanded, foreign involvement in our upcoming election, he struck at the very heart of what makes this a republic to which we pledge allegiance," she said later.

Feldman: Why Trump's acts are impeachable

In his opening statement, Feldman explained his analysis on why Trump's conduct is impeachable.

"Soliciting a foreign government to investigate an electoral rival for personal gain on its own constitutes an impeachable high crime and misdemeanor under the Constitution," he said. "The House heard further testimony that President Trump further abused his office by seeking to create incentives for Ukraine to investigate Vice President Biden.

"Specifically, the House heard testimony that President Trump placed a hold on essential U.S. aid to Ukraine, and conditioned its release on announcement of the Biden and CrowdStrike investigations; and conditioned a White House visit sought by President Zelenskiy on announcement of the investigations.

"Both of these acts constitute high crimes and misdemeanors impeachable under the Constitution," he continued. "By freezing aid to Ukraine and by dangling the promise of a White House visit, the president was corruptly using the powers of the presidency for personal political gain. Here, too, the president’s conduct described by the testimony embodies the framers’ concern that a sitting president would corruptly abuse the powers of office to distort the outcome of a presidential election in his favor."