(Bloomberg) -- House Democrats on Wednesday hinted they’re moving toward bringing articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump on charges of abuse of power, bribery and obstruction, dismissing Republican objections that their entire inquiry is flawed.
Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler opened the panel’s hearing by calling for swift action by Congress and closed by declaring that the president’s actions merited impeachment and that his offenses are “a direct threat” to the nation.
“The president committed impeachable offenses,” Nadler said. “They go to the heart of our constitutional republic.”
The hearing, featuring four legal scholars testifying about the constitutional and historical grounds for impeachment, lacked the drama and surprises of earlier sessions in the Intelligence Committee. But Democrats viewed it as a crucial step in a process that’s likely to end with the House voting along party lines to impeach the president.
The three legal experts called by Democrats all concluded Trump has committed impeachable acts and warned in stark terms against allowing that to stand.
“If what we’re talking about is not impeachable, then nothing is impeachable,” said Michael Gerhardt, a professor of constitutional law at the University of North Carolina school of law.
But the scholar called by Republicans, Jonathan Turley, argued that this impeachment effort was hasty and the evidence so far has been insufficient to gain broad support for action from the public.
“If you rush this impeachment, you’re going to leave half the country behind,” Turley said. “This isn’t an impulse buy.”
As the Judiciary hearing was under way, both sides in the impeachment inquiry were marshaling their forces. The White House sent emissaries to Congress to bolster what had been a solid wall of support for Trump among Republicans, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi huddled in private with House Democrats.
Vice President Mike Pence on Wednesday met with GOP members of the House, while White House Counsel Pat Cipollone and White House Legislative Affairs Director Eric Ueland attended the Senate Republicans’ weekly lunch at the Capitol, along with Tony Sayegh and Pam Bondi, who are coordinating administration messaging on impeachment.
“We’re continuing to have conversations with friends up on the Hill about the fact that the president did nothing wrong, the process on impeachment is fatally flawed, and there are a variety of other priorities that the president and administration have here in Congress that they would like to have focus and work on,” Ueland said before going into the lunch.He said the purpose wasn’t to keep Republicans in line, but they want them to hear where the White House stands on some of the issues that have come up during the hearings.
On the other side of the Capitol, the tone at the Democrats’ weekly caucus meeting reflected the serious stage that the House has reached in the impeachment process. Pelosi barred staff from the meeting, and lawmakers had to give up their cell phones at the door.
Behind closed doors in the Capitol basement, Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff described his committee’s findings as detailed in a 300-page report released Tuesday and was met with a standing ovation, according to a senior Democratic aide.
Pelosi insisted she hasn’t come to any conclusions about whether to move forward with articles of impeachment, nor has she set a deadline.
“We’ll be watching the hearing and see how that goes today,” she said in a brief interview after the meeting. “One step at a time. We saw the report last night and we’ll see the hearing today then we’ll make some decisions after that.”
In the hearing room, Nadler suggested that Democrats are looking beyond Trump’s actions on Ukraine to some of the evidence collected during the investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. The Democrats’ lead counsel, Norm Eisen, indicated in his questioning that Democrats were zeroing in three main areas for articles of impeachment -- abuse of power, bribery and obstruction.
Abuse of Power
Under questioning, Harvard law professor Noah Feldman said abuse of power includes using political office for personal gain. He said Trump did that when when he solicited Ukraine to announce an investigation that would ensnare a political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.
Impeachment is “the only mechanism” to address a president seeking to distort the election system for his personal benefit, he told the committee.
“The president did commit an impeachable abuse of office,” said Feldman, who is also a Bloomberg Opinion columnist.
The other Democratic witnesses, Gerhardt and Pamela Karlan, a professor of public interest law at Stanford Law School, said they agreed.
Feldman and the other Democratic witnesses dismissed the defense offered by Trump and his allies: that the fact the U.S. military aid was ultimately sent to Ukraine and that Ukraine never announced an investigation clears the president of wrongdoing.
“The attempt itself is the impeachable act,” said Feldman, adding that President Richard Nixon failed in his effort to cover up the Watergate break-in but still faced an impeachment process before he resigned.
They also argued that Congress has a responsibility to act, given what they described as efforts to have a foreign government interfere in the 2020 election.
“We are all aware that the next election is looming, but we cannot wait for the election to address the present crisis,” Karlan said. “The integrity of that election is the very thing at stake.”
‘Make It Stick’
But Turley, a George Washington Law School professor, called the case against Trump thin, with much of the evidence collected so far based on second-hand information.
“I am concerned about lowering the impeachment standard,“ Turley said. Acknowledging that Trump has refused to allow testimony by key witnesses including top administration officials, Turley argued action should await a court fight over the president’s blanket refusal to cooperate.
He suggested House Democrats were rushing forward because of their anger against Trump and should instead collect more evidence and allow Trump to exhaust his appeals in the courts against turning over evidence.
“Close enough isn’t good enough,” he 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.”
Turley at times criticized Trump even as he argued that the allegations don’t meet the standard of an impeachable offense.
“Many people feel that what the president has done is obnoxious, contemptible. But contemptible is not synonymous with impeachable,” he said.
In the middle of the hearing, Karlan drew an swift and angry rebuke from Republicans, the Trump campaign and first lady Melania Trump when she made a reference to the president’s 13-year-old son.
Karlan said Trump was incorrect when he once claimed the Constitution gave him broad and unchecked power, like a king. As an example, she said, “while the president can name his son Barron, he can’t make him a baron.”
White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham called it a “classless move” and the first lady directly addressed Karlan in a tweet: “Pamela Karlan, you should be ashamed of your very angry and obviously biased public pandering, and using a child to do it.”
Later in the hearing Karlan expressed regret. “I want to apologize for what I said earlier about the president’s son, it was wrong of me to do that,” she 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.”
During the hearing, both Nadler and top Republican Doug Collins made references to a next hearing scheduled for next week that will focus on the evidence and conclusions contained in the final impeachment report from the Intelligence, Oversight, and Foreign Affairs panels -- though officials with the Judiciary Committee did not provide an exact day.
Schiff had already said on Tuesday that his panel’s legal counsel would be handling that presentation, rather than him personally testifying. Democrats on the Judiciary Committee blocked a motion by Republicans to force Schiff to testify.
(Update’s with Nadler remarks in second, third paragraphs)
--With assistance from Laura Litvan.
To contact the reporters on this story: Billy House in Washington at email@example.com;Steven T. Dennis in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Kevin Whitelaw at email@example.com, Joe Sobczyk, Anna Edgerton
For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com
©2019 Bloomberg L.P.