The House Judiciary Committee opened an epic partisan clash over the impeachment of President Trump on Wednesday at a hearing where Democrats and Republicans offered up dueling legal scholars who disagreed over whether the president’s conduct rose to the constitutional threshold to warrant his removal from office.
At the start of a new phase in Democrats’ fast-moving push to impeach Mr. Trump, three law professors they invited to testify declared that the president’s move to press Ukraine to investigate his political rivals constituted an abuse of power that was clearly impeachable, crossing crucial boundaries established by the nation’s founders to ensure the sanctity of American democracy. The appropriate and necessary remedy, they argued, was impeachment.
“If what we’re talking about is not impeachable, then nothing is impeachable,” Michael J. Gerhardt, a professor at the University of North Carolina, told the panel. “This is precisely the misconduct that the framers created the Constitution, including impeachment, to protect against.”
A fourth witness, called by Republicans, said that might be the case, but argued that Democrats had failed to prove their case against Mr. Trump and risked dangerously lowering the standards for impeachment for decades to come if they drove forward with a “fast and narrow,” and entirely partisan, process.
“I am concerned about lowering impeachment standards to fit a paucity of evidence and an abundance of anger,” said the witness, Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University. “To impeach a president on such a record would be to expose every future president to the same type of inchoate impeachment.”
The dispute unfolded as members of both parties braced for a historic confrontation in the weeks to come over whether to make Mr. Trump only the third president in history to be impeached.
“Are you ready?” Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California, privately asked a roomful of Democrats meeting behind closed doors before the Judiciary Committee’s proceedings began. They were, the lawmakers answered in unison, according to people who attended the session who discussed it on the condition of anonymity to describe a confidential gathering.
Nearby, Vice President Mike Pence was delivering his own battle cry to Republicans at their weekly conference meeting. “Turn up the heat” on House Democrats, he instructed them, according to an official familiar with his comments who spoke about them on the condition of anonymity.
Inside the House Ways and Means Committee’s hearing room, the political divisions briefly receded amid a loftier debate among the constitutional scholars about executive power and accountability, and the standards by which Congress should move to oust a sitting president.
Noah Feldman, a professor at Harvard, argued that Mr. Trump’s decision to withhold a White House meeting and military assistance from Ukraine while he demanded political favors from its president was a classic impeachable abuse of power.
“If we cannot impeach a president who uses his power for personal advantage, we no longer live in a democracy,” Mr. Feldman said. “We live in a monarchy or a dictatorship.”
But Mr. Turley argued that Democrats were tainting the very concept of impeachment by sloppily applying what should be an ironclad set of standards for the most drastic remedy available to hold an American president accountable for wrongdoing. For instance, he said, Democrats were interpreting the concept of bribery too broadly when they used the word to describe Mr. Trump’s conduct.
“This isn’t improvisational jazz — close enough is not good enough,” Mr. Turley said. “If you’re going to accuse a president of bribery, you need to make it stick, because you’re trying to remove a duly elected president of the United States.”
Within the first half-hour of the Judiciary Committee’s work, it was clear that the impeachment proceedings had entered a new, more cantankerous stage. The panel, stacked with some of the House’s most ideologically progressive and conservative lawmakers, lived up to its reputation for partisan rancor. Republicans repeatedly tried to grind the proceedings to a halt with parliamentary demands, while the Democrats tried to press forward undaunted, eyeing an impeachment vote by the full House before Christmas. [Continue reading…]