WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) – US House Democrats on Wednesday (Dec 4) hinted at the articles of impeachment they’ll bring against US President Donald Trump, suggesting charges of abuse of power, bribery and obstruction – and dismissing Republican objections that the entire inquiry is flawed.
Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler opened the panel’s hearing by calling for swift action by Congress, and he indicated that Democrats are looking beyond Mr Trump’s actions on Ukraine to some of the evidence collected during the investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
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 Mr 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 Professor Michael Gerhardt, an expert on constitutional law at the University of North Carolina school of law.
But the scholar called by Republicans, Mr 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,” Mr Turley said. “This isn’t an impulse buy.”
As the Judiciary hearing was under way, both sides in the impeachment inquiry were marshalling their forces.
The White House sent emissaries to Congress to bolster what had been a solid wall of support for Mr 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 Mr Tony Sayegh and Ms 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,” Mr 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.
Ms 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.
Ms 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, the Democrats’ lead counsel, Mr Norm Eisen, indicated Democrats were looking at 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 Mr 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 Prof Feldman, who is also a Bloomberg Opinion columnist.
The other Democratic witnesses,Mr Gerhardt and Dr Pamela Karlan, a professor of public interest law at Stanford Law School, said they agreed.
Mr Feldman and the other Democratic witnesses dismissed the defence offered by Mr Trump and his allies: that the fact the US 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 Mr 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,” Prof Karlan said. “The integrity of that election is the very thing at stake.”
‘MAKE IT STICK’
But Prof Turley, a George Washington Law School professor, called the case against Mr Trump thin, with much of the evidence collected so far based on second-hand information.
“I am concerned about lowering the impeachment standard,” Prof Turley said.
Acknowledging that Mr Trump has refused to allow testimony by key witnesses including top administration officials, Prof 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 Mr Trump and should instead collect more evidence and allow Mr 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.”
Prof Turley at times criticised Mr Trump even as he argued that the allegations don’t meet the standard of an impeachable offence.
“Many people feel that what the president has done is obnoxious, contemptible. But contemptible is not synonymous with impeachable,” he said.
During the hearing, both Mr 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.
Mr 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 Mr Schiff to testify.