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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

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

Live Blog

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Capitol, senators talk impeachment trial

Senators spent part of Wednesday preparing for a likely Trump impeachment trial, with Republican lawmakers talking strategy with White House counsel Pat Cipollone in a closed-door lunch in the afternoon.  

Former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, former Treasury spokesman Tony Sayegh, who are helping the White House with messaging on impeachment, and White House legislative affairs director Eric Ueland joined Cipollone at the lunch, where they stressed the White House’s position on the House process. 

"Cipollone was just talking about their view of what’s happened in the House, and the president’s eagerness to present a case in the Senate, if it came to the Senate,” Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., told reporters, adding, “The president’s view is he feels like he has had no opportunity  to tell his side of the story or defend himself against these allegations."

Ueland also told reporters, “The president wants his case made fully in the Senate.” But several senators said Cipollone made it clear that the White House doesn’t believe the process should even get that far. 

Meanwhile, at the Senate Democratic Caucus lunch, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., gave a presentation about the “mechanics of a potential Senate trial,” a senior Senate Democratic aide told NBC News. As a part of the presentation, members were shown video clips from the 1999 Clinton impeachment trial to get familiar with the process.

Earlier Wednesday, the Senate released its calendar for 2020 with no set schedule for January, an indication Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and others aren't sure of the timeline for a Senate trial.

Asked if a trial would take up the entire month, Blunt replied, “It’s Leader McConnell’s view that we really don’t know what we’ll be doing in January. You know, often there’s a break around Martin Luther King Day and other things that may very well not happen if we’re involved in the impeachment process.”

 

Hearing resumes after a brief break

At about 4:33 p.m., the House Judiciary Committee gaveled back in to continue the five-minute member questions round. About 20 members have yet to ask questions. 

Members take a break

House Judiciary is taking an approximately 5-minute break. When they return, there are around 20 members left to question the witnesses.

Gaetz shouts over Karlan: 'You don’t get to interrupt me'

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., used his time to yell at Karlan, at one point shouting over her after she attempted to respond to one of his questions.

During an unwieldy exchange during which Gaetz was spraying Karlan with questions about statements she’d made previously about compactness requirements — an esoteric term regarding congressional redistricting — Gaetz attacked the professor.

"When you talk about how liberals want to be around each other and cluster, and conservatives don’t want to be around each other … you may not see this from like the ivory tower of your law school," he said, before Karlan attempted to respond.

Gaetz, with his voice raised, shot back, "Excuse me, you don’t get to interrupt me on this time."

He also criticized Karlan, who earlier invoked Trump’s son Barron during a point she was making about how the Constitution forbids nobility titles, for making "a little joke about Baron Trump."

"It makes you looks mean," he said.

Gaetz ended his rant by suggesting that the House should have impeached Obama — and not Trump.

"If wiretapping a political opponent is an impeachable offense," he said, "maybe it’s a different president we should be impeaching."

NBC News reported earlier this week that a draft copy of a report compiled by the Department of Justice inspector general concluded that the FBI didn’t spy on Trump’s 2016 campaign.

GOP Rep. asks Sen. Graham to subpoena phone records of Schiff, Bidens and whistleblower's lawyer Zaid

Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., sent a letter Wednesday to Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, calling for him to subpoena AT&T for the phone records of House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., former Vice President Joe Biden, his son Hunter Biden and the attorney for the whistleblower Mark Zaid. 

Banks writes that “the public has a right to know with whom Rep. Adam Schiff has coordinated his impeachment effort and if America’s national security is at risk in any way as a result of Schiff’s actions.”

Karlan zings Gaetz after he questions her political donations

Karlan zinged Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., after he sharply questioned her about her various Democratic campaign contributions, which included Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Obama and Hilary Clinton.

Gaetz then asked why she gave more to Clinton's campaign than the other two. 

"Because I have been giving a lot more money to charity because there are a lot of poor people in the United States," she shot back. 

Jonathan Turley: Who is the lone GOP impeachment witness (and what's this about his dog)?

The only Republican witness testifying in the impeachment hearing before the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday is an expert on constitutional law and a frequent critic of the House impeachment inquiry.

Jonathan Turley also has a dog, and as he told the committee in his opening statement, that dog is angry.

"I get it. You are mad. The president is mad. My Republican friends are mad. My Democratic friends are mad. My wife is mad. My kids are mad. Even my dog seems mad, and 'Luna' is a goldendoodle and they don't get mad," he testified.

"We are all mad. Where has that taken us? Will a slipshod impeachment make us less mad or will it only give an invitation for the madness to follow in every future administration? That is why this is wrong."

Read more about Turley.

Rep. Buck questions whether past presidents should have been impeached

Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., pressed Turley on whether other presidents would have been impeached for actions while in office. 

Buck named Lyndon B. Johnson for allegedly wielding the FBI to look into a political opponent, FDR allegedly conducting audits of political enemies, and Barack Obama appointing people to the National Labor Relations Board while the Senate was in recess. He then claimed without evidence that Obama directed Hillary Clinton to lie to the American public about the Benghazi attacks.

Turley answered in the affirmative in each case that it could be considered an abuse of power. 

"I can't exclude many of these acts," Turley said. 

Democratic Rep. Karen Bass of California quickly noted after Buck's questioning that Trump had previously suggested investigating and jailing a political opponent.

Republicans excoriate Democrats over impeachment process

Republican lawmakers on the committee excoriated the Democrats for rushing through the impeachment inquiry and doing so without bipartisanship. 

Rep. Steve Chabot of Ohio complained about Democrats hating Trump, his tweets and his policies but said that the impeachment inquiry might help Trump's re-election chances because it will be perceived as unfair by the American people. 

"You may be able to twist enough arms in the House  to impeach the president but that effort's going to die in the Senate," he said, warning against a "party-line impeachment." "There's no doubt it will be perceived by at least half of the American people as an unfair and partisan effort."

Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas read off a list of other expert witnesses that the committee should question, including members of Obama's national security council and aides that worked closely with Biden on Ukraine matters. 

Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio blasted Democrats and argued that the "facts are on the president's side" because Ukraine never announced any investigations. 

“Four key facts will not change, have not changed, will never change. We have the transcript. There was no quid pro quo in the transcript," he said. 

10 takeaways from the impeachment hearing: Legal scholars in plain English

At the House Judiciary Committee's first impeachment hearing, four eminent legal scholars debated whether President Donald Trump’s dealings with Ukraine constituted impeachable offenses.

The three scholars called to testify by Democrats — Pamela Karlan, a professor at Stanford Law School and a former Justice Department official in the Obama administration; Noah Feldman, a professor at Harvard Law School; and Michael Gerhardt, a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law — overwhelmingly concluded that the evidence against Trump showed the president had committed impeachable actions. The one scholar called by Republicans — Jonathan Turley, of the George Washington University School of Law — took issue with the hurried process of the inquiry.

Along the way, there was talk of originalism, the Founding Fathers, King George III and the Secret Treaty of Dover. Oh, and someone used the word "necromancy."

Read our 10 most important lines from Wednesday's hearing — in plain English.

Melania Trump, conservatives slam Karlan's Barron Trump reference

Trump campaign spokesperson Kayleigh McEnany said in a statement, “Only in the minds of crazed liberals is it funny to drag a 13-year-old child into the impeachment nonsense. Pamela Karlan thought she was being clever and going for laughs, but she instead reinforced for all Americans that Democrats have no boundaries when it comes to their hatred of everything related to President Trump. Hunter Biden is supposedly off-limits according to liberals, but a 13-year-old boy is fair game. Disgusting.

“Every Democrat in Congress should immediately repudiate Pamela Karlan and call on her to personally apologize to the president and the first lady for mocking their son on national TV.”