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Scholars in the spotlight at impeachment hearing

From left, Prof. Noah Feldman, Prof. Pamela Karlan,

From left, Prof. Noah Feldman, Prof. Pamela Karlan, Jonathan Turley and Prof. Michael Gerhardt during a break in the House Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday. Credit: AFP via Getty Images/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI

WASHINGTON — It was three to one for impeachment of President Donald Trump among the four constitutional scholars who testified in the first formal public impeachment inquiry hearing held by the deeply divided House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.

The Republicans’ lone choice, Jonathan Turley of George Washington University Law School, disagreed and said Democrats had not proved their case — despite acknowledging he did not vote for Trump and has disagreements with him.

Turley's arguments, however, did not shake the views of the liberal scholars: Harvard Law School Professor Noah Feldman, Stanford Law School Professor Pamela Karlan and University of North Carolina Law School Professor Michael Gerhardt.

Here are take-aways from the hearing:

No doubt about impeachable offenses

“Correct.” “Yes.” “Yes.” That’s how Gerhardt, Karlan and Feldman answered when asked if they had identified an impeachable act, a high crime and misdemeanor and abuse of power by Trump based on the evidence Democrats have gathered so far.

“President Trump abused his office by corruptly soliciting [Ukraine] President Volodymyr Zelensky to announce investigations of his political rivals in order to gain personal advantage, including in the 2020 presidential election,” Feldman testified.

Karlan said “drawing a foreign government into our election process is an especially serious abuse of power because it undermines democracy itself.”

Said Gerhardt: “If what we are talking about is not impeachable, then nothing is impeachable.”

The Power of One

Turley often had the stage to himself because Republicans posed their questions mostly to him and Democrats mostly avoided him. Turley slipped in jokes as he sowed doubts about the speed and thoroughness of the impeachment process.

“We are living in … a period of agitated passions. I get it. You are mad. The President is mad. My Republican friends are mad. My Democratic friends are mad. My wife is mad. My kids are mad. Even my dog seems mad and Luna is a golden doodle and they don’t get mad,” Turley said.

“Will a slipshod impeachment make us less mad?” he asked. “It's not wrong because President Trump is right. His call was anything but perfect. It is not wrong because the House has no legitimate reason to investigate the Ukrainian controversy. It is not wrong because we are in an election year. There is no good time for an impeachment. No, it is wrong because this is not how you impeach an American President.”

What is bribery?

As could be expected, all four scholars referred to the framers of the Constitution early and often and tried to interpret what their words, written in 1789, mean now — particularly the term “bribery,” one of the offenses listed as impeachable.

It meant, “when you took private benefits or when you ask for private benefits in return for an official act,” Karlan said.

“It was when the president, using the power of his office, solicits or receives something of personal value from someone affected by his official powers,” Feldman testified.

But Turley said use of the term bribery must refer to a crime, as defined by a recent unanimous Supreme Court ruling that narrowed its definition.

He rejected Karlan's and Feldman’s interpretations as too broad and vague.

“You can't accuse a president of bribery, and then when some of us know that the Supreme Court has rejected your type of boundless interpretation and, say, 'well, it's just impeachment,'” Turley said. “Close enough is not good enough.”

Return of the Mueller report?

When the questions turned to whether Trump had obstructed justice, Gerhardt brought up the Mueller report’s detailed analysis of 10 episodes of possible obstruction. It was a hint that Judiciary Committee Democrats might broaden articles of impeachment to include former special counsel Robert Mueller’s findings.

“The Mueller report cites a number of facts that indicate the president of the United States obstructed justice, and that's an impeachable offense,” Gerhardt said.

“Obstruction of justice has been recognized as an impeachable offense both against President Clinton, and President Nixon," Gerhardt continued. "This evidence that's been put forward by Mr. Mueller that's in the public record is very strong evidence of obstruction of justice.”

Republicans on the attack

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) had promised the day before the hearing that Republicans would do what they always do — and they did.

They interrupted Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-Manhattan), the Judiciary Committee chairman, at the start of the hearing with points of order and two roll call votes to table motions.

After that, Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) disparaged the scholars, saying, “America will see why most people don't go to law school.”

Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) asked the professors to raise their hands if they voted for Trump. 

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) asked each of the Democrats' scholars about their contributions to Democratic candidates.

And Gaetz told Karlan her joke about Trump’s son — “While the president can name his son Baron, he can't make him a baron” — had made her look mean. Karlan apologized later in the hearing.

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