Dems signal Mueller-related impeachment charges as witnesses assail Trump

By Kyle Cheney and Andrew Desiderio

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) on Wednesday described President Donald Trump’s posture toward Ukraine as part of a pattern of abuse of power and obstruction of justice that began with Trump’s efforts to undermine special counsel Robert Mueller.

Nadler’s comments at the Judiciary Committee’s first impeachment hearing came as three constitutional lawyers called by Democrats testified that Trump’s actions toward Ukraine were the worst examples of misconduct in presidential history and represented the reason the framers included impeachment in the Constitution.

The chairman’s opening statement suggested that Democrats are strongly considering linking Mueller’s findings to the House’s impeachment inquiry, which has focused primarily on allegations that Trump abused the power of his presidency by pressuring Ukraine’s leaders to investigate his political rivals. Trump, Democrats have argued, sought to obstruct both the Ukraine investigation and the Mueller probe.

“President Trump welcomed foreign interference in the 2016 election. He demanded it for the 2020 election,” Nadler said.

“In both cases, he got caught,” he added. “And in both cases, he did everything in his power to prevent the American people from learning the truth about his conduct.”

Nadler emphasized that Mueller’s findings — on Russian interference in the 2016 election and Trump’s efforts to thwart that probe — could also be considered as Democrats draft articles of impeachment as soon as next week. Democrats have mused for months about impeaching Trump based on claims that Trump engaged in obstruction of justice when he sought to shut down the Mueller probe.

Nadler argued that both the Mueller investigation and the Ukraine probe were met with fierce “obstruction” from Trump — a nod to a likely article of impeachment centering on obstruction of Congress. Further underscoring the likelihood of considering Mueller’s report in the impeachment process, Democrats displayed three potential articles of impeachment on a screen inside the hearing room: abuse of power, obstruction of Congress, and obstruction of justice.

Norm Eisen, a lawyer for Democrats on the Judiciary Committee who questioned the legal scholars, underscored Democrats’ focus on obstruction of justice when he asked the witnesses about the obstruction evidence laid out in volume two of Mueller’s report. During his questioning, he walked through each of the three potential articles of impeachment and asked the witnesses how each could be applied to Trump’s conduct.

The committee is set to draft and consider articles of impeachment in the coming days, on the heels of a House Intelligence Committee report released Tuesday centering on Trump’s alleged Ukraine pressure campaign.

“[W]hen we apply the Constitution to those facts, if it is true that President Trump has committed an impeachable offense — or impeachable offenses — then we must move swiftly to do our duty and charge him accordingly,” Nadler said.

Republicans repeatedly sought to make good on their promise to raise procedural objections in a bid to disrupt the hearing. At different times, GOP lawmakers sought to delay the hearing by a week, to subpoena Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and to subpoena the whistleblower who first revealed the Ukraine allegations.

Nadler, who a day earlier pledged to colleagues that he would not “take any shit” during the hearing, quickly quashed each effort, calling votes to sideline them along party lines and moving on with the hearing.

Nadler’s comments came at the beginning of Wednesday’s hearing with legal scholars who were testifying about the constitutional framework of the impeachment process.

Democrats planned to lean on the testimony of their witnesses as they assert that their case that Trump abused his power is “overwhelming” and “indisputable.” The testimony marks the beginning of the Judiciary Committee's drive to turn a mountain of evidence unearthed by congressional investigators into a constitutional case for Trump’s impeachment and removal from office.

“The president’s serious misconduct, including bribery, soliciting a personal favor from a foreign leader in exchange for his exercise of power, and obstructing justice and Congress are worse than the misconduct of any prior president,” said Michael Gerhardt, a University of North Carolina law professor.

Gerhardt, along with Harvard University law professor Noah Feldman and Stanford University law professor Pamela Karlan, argued that Trump's conduct far exceeds the bar set in the Constitution — high crimes and misdemeanors — to warrant impeachment and removal from office.

Though the hearing was expected to feature few fireworks from the witnesses, Karlan began her remarks with a fiery jab at Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Doug Collins (R-Ga.), who had questioned whether the law professors could possibly have digested the facts laid out in Democrats' Ukraine report, which was released just day earlier.

“Here, Mr. Collins, I would like to say to you, sir, that I read transcripts of every one of the witnesses who appeared in the live hearings,” she said, “So I’m insulted by the suggestion that as a law professor I don’t care about those facts.”

The lone GOP witness, George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley, argued that impeaching Trump over the Ukraine allegations would be a historic mistake.

“If the House proceeds solely on the Ukrainian allegations, this impeachment would stand out among modern impeachments as the shortest proceeding, with the thinnest evidentiary record, and the narrowest grounds ever used to impeach a president,” Turley said. He also said the House's impeachment process was too rushed.

Turley also pushed back on the notion that Trump engaged in obstruction of Congress by withholding documents and ordering senior officials not to testify. He said Democrats should pause their inquiry to wait for the federal courts to resolve the various subpoena disputes.

“If you make a high crime and misdemeanor out of going to the courts, it’s an abuse of power,” Turley said. “It’s [Congress’] abuse of power.”

The panel’s first impeachment hearing comes a day after House Democrats released a scathing 300-page report accusing Trump of pressuring Ukraine — a nation dependent on U.S. support for its war against Russia — to investigate his Democratic adversaries. They also allege that the president obstructed their investigation and intimidated witnesses along the way.

Wednesday’s hearing marked the formal hand-off from the Intelligence Committee, which led the Ukraine probe, to the Judiciary Committee, which is tasked with shepherding the impeachment process to the House floor. The panel of constitutional law scholars, Democrats said, would apply the facts of the Ukraine investigation to the standards for impeachment set out in the Constitution.

The hearing was the first in a series that is likely to result in the Judiciary Committee drafting articles of impeachment, which Democrats are aiming to vote on before Christmas — though a formal timetable is still being hashed out among senior Democratic leaders.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters, “if the Judiciary Committee comes forward with recommendations, I think there’s time do it” by the end of the year.

Like the Intelligence Committee’s impeachment hearings, Wednesday’s hearing featured lengthy questioning rounds by committee lawyers, a format that aided Democrats during the evidence-gathering phase. Eisen led the Democrats’ staff questioning, while Paul Taylor led Republicans’ staff questioning.

Democrats' witnesses emphasized that there is enough evidence to impeach Trump simply in the transcript of his July 25 phone call with Ukraine's president Volodymyr Zelensky, in which Trump requested that Zelensky investigate former Vice President Joe Biden. That call alone, said Feldman, is an abuse of Trump's power.

“This act on its own qualifies as an impeachable high crime and misdemeanor,” Feldman said.

Turley argued that impeaching Trump solely for an “abuse of power” would break from the House's previous two impeachments that also alleged criminal conduct by the president. And he said there was no direct evidence to show that Trump withheld nearly $400 million in military aid and a White House meeting for Zelensky in order to aid the campaign to pressure Ukraine to pursue Trump’s desired investigations.

“Abuses of power tend to be even less defined and more debatable as a basis for impeachment than some of the crimes already mentioned. Again, while a crime is not required to impeach, clarity is necessary,” he said. “In this case, there needs to be clear and unequivocal proof of a quid pro quo. That is why I have been critical of how this impeachment has unfolded.”

In additional to their procedural objections, Republicans pressed a case that Democrats’ evidence failed to show anything remotely close to justifying Trump’s removal from office. A report prepared by Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee characterized Democrats’ probe as a political exercise intended to damage Trump based on “hearsay” and “emotion” rather than facts.

Trump opted against sending a White House representative to Wednesday’s hearing, despite the House-approved option to allow a lawyer for the president to participate in the hearing and join in the questioning of witnesses. However, Trump has not ruled out sending a lawyer to future hearings held by the committee.

Melanie Zanona contributed to this report.