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Analysis after the Judiciary Committee impeachment hearing

Live blog with the latest news coverage from the House Judiciary Committee's first impeachment inquiry hearing on Trump and Ukraine.
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

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

  • 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

Download the NBC News mobile app for the latest news on the impeachment inquiry

Live Blog

Turley takes issue with bribery, obstruction allegations against Trump

Turley takes issue with his colleagues’ view that Trump committed bribery in his dealings with Ukraine.

Responding to questions from Collins, Turley referred to the writings of Founding Fathers James Madison and George Mason as well as several Supreme Court rulings. 

"You shouldn’t just take my word for it," he said. "Look to see how it’s defined by the United States Supreme Court."

Turley also said that "the record does not establish obstruction in this case" and, reiterating points made in his opening statement, criticized the hurried pace of the inquiry against Trump.

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

On Rep. Raskin's desk: 'The Federalist Papers' and 'Rights of Man' by Thomas Paine

Copies of "The Federalist Papers" and "Rights of Man" by Thomas Paine on the desk of Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., during a break in the House Judiciary Committee's impeachment hearing on Wednesday. Jacquelyn Martin / AP

Hearing gavels back in

The House Judiciary Committee concluded the short break at about 12:29 p.m. and now begin the 45-minute question period for the Republicans. The House heads to vote at around 1:30 p.m., so another break is expected around then.

Who is Norm Eisen, the lawyer doing the questioning for the Judiciary Committee?

The lawyer leading the questioning of the witnesses in the House Judiciary Committee's impeachment inquiry is Norman Eisen, a former ethics official in the Obama administration and a longtime Trump critic.

The panel's Democratic leadership announced it was hiring Eisen as one of two "oversight counsels" in February. The pair was retained to consult on "oversight and policy issues within the committee's jurisdiction." A Harvard Law School graduate and former classmate of Barack Obama, Eisen spent over a decade in private practice in Washington, D.C., before co-founding Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group, in 2003.

In 2009, Eisen was named special counsel for ethics and government reform in the Obama White House, and is credited with the decision to put the White House visitor logs online. He was later named ambassador to the Czech Republic by Obama. 

Eisen has been a frequent critic of the Trump administration's ethical standards, and represented CREW in a court battle charging that the president was violating the Constitution's emoluments clause. In 2018, he and two other lawyers wrote an article arguing that Trump had obstructed justice in the Mueller investigation — a charge Mueller addressed in his report by saying it was not clear that Trump did not obstruct justice. 


Grisham rips 'sham hearing'

Bribery and the president's intent

Karlan testified that Trump’s Ukraine actions rise to the level of “bribery” — not just high crimes and misdemeanors — under the Constitution.

"Yes, they do,” she said under questioning from Democratic staff lawyer Norm Eisen.

Bribery is only one of a larger set of potentially impeachable offenses the House is considering, but her exchange with Eisen points to a key battle between House Democrats and the White House.

Karlan added later that the president met the threshold for bribery if his intention in withholding aid from Ukraine was to benefit himself politically through the investigations he wanted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to announce into former Vice President Joe Biden as well as a conspiracy theory alleging Ukrainian meddling in the 2016 election.

“Then, yes, you have bribery there,” she said.

Establishing the intent of the president has been trickier for Democrats than other elements of the case because, while they have plenty of evidence that he and his lieutenants connected the aid to the investigations and have produced witnesses who concluded that his motivation was political, they have not demonstrated that Trump ever said he was going after Biden to help his own re-election.

Indeed, after it was clear to the White House that an intelligence community whistleblower was going to allege the president engaged in a bribery scheme, the president publicly declared there was “no quid pro quo” and senior political officials in the administration began explaining the aid freeze as a matter of  national security.

And, as Karlan noted, there is little to suggest that anyone in the president’s orbit who dealt with Ukraine pushed back on the idea that his motivation in freezing aid was for anything other than benefiting himself politically. It’s a fight in which Republicans will insist there’s no smoking gun and Democrats will point to all of the evidence that suggests personal political benefit is exactly what the president sought.

Karlan: I was so busy reading transcripts I didn’t make a turkey

As Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee argue the impeachment inquiry is fact-free, Karlan said repeatedly that she’s rooting her testimony in the countless sworn testimonies that were released publicly by the House Intelligence. And she has read them all, she said.  

"You know, I spent all of Thanksgiving vacation sitting there reading these transcripts," she said, adding that she "ate a turkey that came to us in the mail that was already cooked because I was spending my time doing this."

And that testimony, she said, was telling.

"Ambassador Sondland said he had to announce the investigations — he’s talking about President Zelenskiy — he had to announce the investigations, he didn’t have to do them as I understood it," Karlan said, apparently reading from a transcript of testimony. "What I took that to mean was that this was not about whether Vice President Biden committed corruption nor not. This was about injuring someone the president thought of as a particularly hard opponent."

Committee takes a break

The House Judiciary Committee has taken a break in the impeachment inquiry hearing for approximately 10 minutes. 

OPINION: Democrats' impeachment report is too muddled to change any minds

Impeachment is a political act that relies on making a legal case. And the lawyering in this report is atrocious.

Other readers may have different takeaways from this report, but my sense is that people who weren’t already predisposed to want President Donald Trump removed from office prematurely still won’t want him tossed after skimming this.

Read more here.

Law profs: Trump's actions are impeachable whether he got what he wanted or not

All of the law professors called as Democratic witnesses agreed that Trump's push for Ukraine to probe the Bidens and Democrats is impeachable regardless of whether Ukraine carried out or announced those investigations.

Whether or not Ukraine followed through on Trump's ask is irrelevant when considering whether Trump's conduct is impeachable, they said.

Feldman compared it to Watergate, where Nixon's team botched the operation. Karlan said "soliciting itself is the impeachable offense, regardless of whether the other person comes up with it," and compared it to a police officer asking for a bribe in order to let someone off the hook, only to let that person go when they could not come up with the money.

She said Trump's action "would have been an impeachable act even if" Zelenskiy "refused right there on the phone."

Gerhardt said he agreed with his counterparts' assessments, saying impeachments are "always focusing on someone who didn't quite get as far as they wanted to."

Hoyer: 'Serious questions' about Devin Nunes' actions

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said Wednesday that actions by Rep. Devin Nunes of California, the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, had raised "serious questions" that needed to be looked into.

A report released Tuesday by the House Intelligence Committee contained phone records between Nunes and Rudy Giuliani in April, when Giuliani was publicly calling for an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden. 

When asked about Nunes, Hoyer, at his weekly off-camera briefing with reporters, said: "I think there are serious questions that have been raised by Mr. Nunes' actions, and we need to look at them and see what action ought to be taken if any. And I want to have input from other people before I opine on what ought to be done."

Hoyer did not specify what actions he was referring to, but he also addressed today's impeachment hearing and the timeline of drawing up and voting on any articles of impeachment.

"I think there is time to do it before the end of the year, but I am not saying that we are going to do it by the end of the year," Hoyer said. "But I am saying if the Judiciary Committee comes forward with recommendations and they come forward with recommendations in a timeframe in which we can get it done, then we will have the time to do it."