Abuse of power, bribery, obstruction: Democrats’ impeachment plan takes shape

A combative first day of hearings in the House Judiciary Committee

WASHINGTON, DC – DECEMBER 4: Ranking member Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA) speaks as Chairman Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) listens during testimony by constitutional scholars before the House Judiciary Committee in the Longworth House Office Building on Capitol Hill December 4, 2019 in Washington, DC. This is the first hearing held by the Judiciary Committee in the impeachment inquiry against U.S. President Donald Trump, whom House Democrats say held back military aid for Ukraine while demanding it investigate his political rivals. The Judiciary Committee will decide whether to draft official articles of impeachment against President Trump to be voted on by the full House of Representatives. (Photo by Saul Loeb-Pool/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC – Ranking member Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA) speaks as Chairman Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) listens during House Judiciary Committee hearings on impeachment. (Photo by Saul Loeb-Pool/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — U.S. House Democrats are laying out their framework for articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump. 

As the House Judiciary Committee held its first official impeachment hearing on Wednesday, Democrats signaled that they intend to accuse Trump of abuse of power, bribery, obstruction of Congress and obstruction of justice. 

The lawyer for Judiciary Committee Democrats, Norm Eisen, pressed witnesses to testify specifically about each of those topics, which he labeled “high crimes and misdemeanors.” 

The hearing comes after the House Intelligence Committee approved a report Tuesday night that details allegations that Trump abused his power by pressuring Ukraine’s president to investigate Trump’s political rival. 

Legal scholars told House lawmakers at Wednesday’s hearing that they believe the president is guilty of impeachable offenses. 

“On the basis of the testimony and the evidence before the House, President Trump has committed impeachable high crimes and misdemeanors by corruptly abusing the office of the presidency,” Harvard Law School professor Noah Feldman told the panel. 

Michael Gerhardt, a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law, said the record shows that “the president has committed several impeachable offenses, including bribery, abuse of power in soliciting a personal favor from a foreign leader to benefit his political campaign, obstructing Congress, and obstructing justice.”

If Congress fails to impeach Trump, Gerhardt added, “then the impeachment process has lost all meaning, and, along with that, our Constitution’s carefully crafted safeguards against the establishment of a king on American soil.” 

Pamela Karlan, a Stanford Law School professor, said the “very idea that a president might seek the aid of a foreign government in his reelection campaign would have horrified” the founders of the U.S. government. “But based on the evidentiary record, that is what President Trump has done,” she told lawmakers. 

Jonathan Turley of the George Washington University Law School warned against impeaching Trump. Turley, the lone witness invited by Republicans, said he’s concerned about “lowering impeachment standards to fit a paucity of evidence and an abundance of anger.” 

This impeachment, Turley said, “not only fails to satisfy the standard of past impeachments but would create a dangerous precedent for future impeachments.” 

GOP disrupts, points to ‘tears in Brooklyn’ 

Committee Republicans, meanwhile, disrupted the hearing and frustrated Democrats by using procedural tactics to slow things down.

Wisconsin Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner interjected at the start of the hearing to request a day of GOP-led hearings before the committee votes on articles of impeachment. The request was set aside by Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.). 

“I think the American public are getting a little bit sick and tired of impeachment, impeachment, impeachment, when they know that less than a year from now they will be able to determine whether Donald Trump stays in office or somebody else will be elected,” Sensenbrenner said.  “I take this responsibility very seriously. It is an awesome and very grave responsibility and it is not one that should be done lightly, it is not one that should be done quickly, and it is not one without examining all of the evidence, which is what was done in the Nixon impeachment and what was done largely by Kenneth Starr in the Clinton impeachment.”

Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on the committee, sought to force the testimony of Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) before the committee, but Democrats voted to quash his attempt. 

Another Republican lawmaker, North Dakota Rep. Kelly Armstrong, attempted to postpone the hearing until Dec. 11, which Democrats also voted down. 

Collins labeled the Democrats’ impeachment proceedings a “sham.” 

Democrats “just don’t like” Trump, Collins said, accusing his colleagues of attempting to oust the president ever since Democrats seized control of the House early this year. 

“This is not an impeachment, this is just a simple railroad job, and today’s is a waste of time,” Collins said. “It didn’t start with [former special counsel Robert] Mueller. It didn’t start with a phone call. You know where this started? [It] started with tears in Brooklyn in 2016, when an election was lost,” he said, referring to Hillary Clinton’s campaign headquarters in New York. 

Asked about concerns that impeachment might be a political loser for Democrats, especially given a recent Marquette Law School poll that showed support for impeachment softening slightly in Wisconsin, Rep. Mark Pocan pointed to polls showing that 70% of Americans think the president did something wrong, and “depending on the poll, 49 to 51% say he should be impeached and removed from office. That’s a pretty remarkably large number, especially given how polarized we are.”

But the political implications are not the main issue, Pocan added.  “People have lots of opinions on this, like, you know, ‘Let the election happen’. What we’ve said is, if you have a Department of Justice that says … they won’t indict a sitting president … the only recourse you have left in the Constitution is in the impeachment process via Congress. We are the only stopgap. If we do nothing, we have set a precedent for every future president, that you can do whatever you want, and you won’t be accountable. So we have to do this.”