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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Witness Karlan apologizes for mentioning Barron Trump amid conservative backlash

Karlan apologized for mentioning Barron Trump, the president's teenage son, earlier in the hearing after receiving backlash from Republicans on the committee, the president's allies and the first lady. 

"I want to apologize for what I said earlier about the president's son. It was wrong of me to do that," Karlan said. "I wish the president would apologize, obviously, for the things that he's done that's wrong, but I do regret having said that." 

Earlier, the Stanford law professor tried to detail the difference between American democracy and the bygone powerful British monarchy, saying that the founders did not want a king when forming the constitution. 

"The Constitution doesn’t allow titles of nobility," she said earlier. "The president can name his son Barron, but he can’t make him a baron."

Scalise: 'Why are we wasting time' on these witnesses?

Hearing update: About seven lawmakers left to ask questions

All Republican members have asked their five-minutes of questions. There are just seven Democrats left to question the witnesses, and then Collins and Nadler can give closing remarks. So the hearing should wrap up in about 45 minutes or so. 

Intelligence ranking member Nunes enters the hearing room

Rep. Devin Nunes, the ranking member of the Intelligence Committee, came into the hearing room and gathered on the side of the dais with a couple of other Republican lawmakers.

Nunes, R-Calif, then sat next to fellow Trump ally Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., a member of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, in the audience seats reserved for lawmakers. The two chatted quietly, and after a short time Nunes left. Meadows also sat in on the Intelligence panel's hearings despite not sitting on that committee either.

McClintock causes fireworks after asking scholars who they voted for

A fiery exchange erupted during the hearing when Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., asked the scholars who they voted for in the 2016 election.

Turley voluntarily testified earlier that he did not vote for Trump, but when asked during the tail end of the hearing the other witnesses vehemently pushed back at the question. 

Karlan shot back that she would not disclose that information because she has the right to cast a private ballot.

Chairman Nadler also chimed in, telling the witnesses that they did not have to answer the question. McClintock then asked again, telling them to raise their hands if they voted for Trump. Feldman then interjected telling McClintock that refusing to raise their hands was not an answer because secret ballots are the cornerstone of voting in America.

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.