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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Eisen hints at possible articles of impeachment in his opening questioning

Norman Eisen, the lead counsel for the House Judiciary Committee Democrats, hinted at what the committee may recommend as articles of impeachment at the onset of his 45 minutes of questioning Wednesday.

Eisen began by asking about several charges that might be included: abuse of power and bribery, obstruction of Congress and obstruction of justice.

As NBC News reported yesterday, Democrats are considering one to two articles on abuse of power, one article on contempt and obstruction of Congress, and one related to obstruction of justice.

Haake: Roll call votes can 'prevent this hearing from gaining any coherence'

Hillary Clinton says every American should read House impeachment report

Turley: Impeachment is wrong because it's being rushed, not because Trump is right

George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley, the Republicans' witness, said the impeachment of Trump is about the "opacity of evidence" and the "abundance of anger," comparing it to the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson in the 1860s.

He said then, like now, Congress created a "trap-door crime" to impeach the president.

"I get it. You're mad. The president's mad," Turley said. "My Republican friends are mad. My Democratic friends are mad. My wife is mad. My kids are mad."

He said he thought perhaps even his goldendoodle was "mad," though he said that it is supposed to be a happy dog.

Turley said this impeachment process would harm every future president. He said impeachment was not wrong because Trump acted properly or because Congress had no legitimate reason to investigate, but rather because it was being rushed.

Of note, Turley, who made clear at the outset that he did not support Trump in 2016, testified before the House Judiciary Committee in 1998 in support of impeaching President Bill Clinton.

Staff questions begin after another GOP motion tabled

The Judiciary Committee voted along party lines to kill a motion from GOP Rep. Guy Reschenthaler of Pennsylvania to subpoena the whistleblower. 

Two witnesses got up during this vote. 

Now, the staff question round is starting. Nadler and the Democratic counsel have 45 minutes to ask questions of the witnesses followed by Collins and the GOP counsel who will also have 45 minutes to ask questions. 

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.