By 3 to 1, legal scholars call for Trump impeachment at first Judiciary hearing

Alexander NazaryanNational Correspondent

WASHINGTON — Even Jonathan Turley’s dog is mad. 

Turley, a professor of law at George Washington University, was testifying at the House Judiciary Committee’s first hearing in the impeachment inquiry focused on President Trump’s alleged extortion of the Ukrainian president. 

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Turley was the only one of four law professors testifying Tuesday who was called by the Republican minority on the committee. The other three witnesses — Michael Gerhardt, a law professor at the University of North Carolina, Noah Feldman of Harvard, and Pamela Karlan of Stanford — were all called by the Democrats, under the chairmanship of Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y. Turley brought up his upset goldendoodle — a breed generally known for an easygoing personality — in his opening statement, illustrating how Trump’s presidency has excited the passions of his supporters and detractors alike. He went on to say that impeachment is an ill-advised response by those detractors, arguing that while Trump may have erred in his dealings with Volodomyr Zelensky, the new Ukrainian president, his poor judgment did not constitute an impeachable offense. 

“Will a slipshod impeachment make us less mad,” Turley wondered, “or will it only give an invitation for the madness to follow in every future administration?”

He did not say whether his dog favored impeachment, nor was the canine summoned to testify individually. But the dog instantly captured attention on Twitter, attaining stardom on a day that otherwise had the feel of a constitutional law seminar. 

A few lighthearted moments aside, the affair was predictably partisan, with Democrats portraying themselves as carrying out a grim constitutional duty. “This is not a proceeding I was looking forward to,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif.

Republicans, by contrast, portrayed the hearing as the latest episode in a longstanding anti-Trump drama, which has been airing since the moment polls closed on Nov. 8, 2016.

From left, constitutional law experts Noah Feldman of Harvard, Pamela Karlan of Stanford, Michael Gerhardt of UNC and Jonathan Turley of George Washington University are sworn in before testifying before the House Judiciary Committee. (Photo: Alex Brandon/AP)
From left, constitutional law experts Noah Feldman of Harvard, Pamela Karlan of Stanford, Michael Gerhardt of UNC and Jonathan Turley of George Washington University are sworn in before testifying before the House Judiciary Committee. (Photo: Alex Brandon/AP)

“Grab your popcorn,” counseled House Intelligence Committee ranking member Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., in an angry opening statement that had him shouting at times. Republicans also frequently interrupted the hearing with procedural motions, lending a confusing, disorganized feel to the proceedings.

The White House was invited to participate in the hearing, but its lawyers did not show. Asked for comment, White House communications director Stephanie Grisham referred Yahoo News to Twitter, where she had posted several comments throughout the hearing. “In this country you’re innocent until proven guilty, unless you’re [Trump],” one of her messages said. “This sham is wrong.”

All four of the witnesses were law scholars, three of them adamantly in favor of impeaching Trump based on evidence released by the House Intelligence Committee that Trump demanded that the Ukraine president announce investigations into a (nonexistent) plot by Ukraine to help Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election and into the business dealings in Ukraine of Joe Biden’s son Hunter. The majority report concluded that Trump used the prospect of a White House meeting and the resumption of withheld military assistance to enforce his request for a “favor.” 

Joe Biden is now running to challenge Trump for the presidency next year, and the announcement sought by Trump could damage his campaign. 

Zelensky never announced or launched such investigations, and though military aid was withheld for much of the summer, it was ultimately released. An Oval Office meeting between Trump and Zelensky has still not taken place.

The three Democratic witnesses broadly agreed that asking Ukrainian authorities to effectively interfere in U.S. domestic affairs was itself improper and, in addition, that the president’s unequivocal refusal to cooperate with the congressional impeachment inquiry constitutes an act of obstruction — a crime on top of a crime, in Democrats’ view.

In her fiery opening statement, Stanford Law professor Pamela Karlan said that “a candidate for president should resist foreign interference in our elections, not demand it.” That came near the conclusion of her opening remarks, which she began by forcefully disputing the assertion by Collins that legal experts with no direct involvement in the impeachment inquiry had no business serving as witnesses.

Pamela Karlan of Stanford University speaks during a House Judiciary Committee hearing. (Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)
Pamela Karlan of Stanford University speaks during a House Judiciary Committee hearing. (Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

“I would not speak about these things without reviewing the facts. So I’m insulted by the suggestion that as a law professor I don’t care about those facts,” Karlan told Collins, in a moment that — like Turley’s revelation about his irritated goldendoodle — quickly exploded on social media

Karlan later rebutted the notion — used by Republicans to defend Trump — that since the military and other aid to Ukraine was ultimately released, no crime was committed.

It will fall to the House Judiciary Committee to draft articles of impeachment, which it is expected to do in the coming weeks. Increasingly, it appears that at least one of the charges will be related to the White House’s refusal to turn over documents or allow administration officials from testifying.

“A president who will not cooperate in an impeachment inquiry is putting himself above the law,” said Noah Feldman, a Harvard Law professor. “Now, putting yourself above the law as president is the core of an impeachable offense because if the president could not be impeached for that, he would in fact not be responsible to anybody.”

The Democratic case was summarized by Michael Gerhardt, a University of North Carolina law professor. “If what we are talking about is not impeachable, then nothing is impeachable,” he said at one point during the hearing.

Republicans appeared utterly unconvinced. Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., a supporter of the president who sits on the House Intelligence Committee and watched Wednesday’s proceedings from the audience, likened the hearing to “twice baked potatoes,” as he wrote in a text message to Yahoo News. “Same content, different presentation, same bland result,” he elaborated.

Law professor Michael Gerhardt. (Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)
Law professor Michael Gerhardt. (Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

When it came time to question witnesses, Republicans focused solely on Turley, effectively ignoring the other three witnesses. Democrats directed the vast majority of their questions to Feldman, Karlan and Gerhardt, sometimes to directly rebut what Turley had said only minutes before. That gave both sides video clips ready-made for social media and cable news. But it also seemed likely to perpetuate the bracingly disparate political realities recognized by Democrats and Republicans.

Turley was broadly successful in making the Republican case in good humor, without provoking Democrats — though likely not persuading them either. “Fast is not good for impeachment,” Turley said at one point, later adding that “you need to stick a landing on the quid pro quo.” He said that so far, he had seen no evidence of such an arrangement. Many witnesses in the Intelligence Committee investigation said it was plain to them that Trump wanted political favors from Zelensky, and was willing to exert significant pressure to get them.

Republicans were less successful when they tried to depict Hunter Biden, the former vice president’s troubled son, as worthy of the kind of investigation Trump demanded. They did so, on one occasion, by quoting from “Impeach: The Case Against Donald Trump,” by former Solicitor General Neal Katyal.

Katyal used Twitter to inform his 368,000 followers that he had been grossly misquoted. “Wow. I just watched Republicans lie about my book,” Katyal wrote in a message that was shared thousands of times. Clearly irate that his words were being used for a pro-Trump talking point, Katyal wrote in another message that “Republicans have no defense of the President. They have to resort to lies like this. It won’t work. Trump’s guilty. He will be removed.”

Photo: Drew Angerer/Pool via Reuters
Photo: Drew Angerer/Pool via Reuters

Nor did Rep. Ken Buck of Colorado’s suggestion that the likes of John F. Kennedy and Franklin D. Roosevelt may have committed impeachment-worthy offenses during their own presidencies appear to land with the intended effectiveness, at least judging by the mockery to which he was instantly subjected on Twitter.

The president himself did not tweet about the hearing. He has been in London for a NATO meeting. 

Asked during a break for her views on the proceedings, Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., let out a sigh before describing the hearing as “exhausting.” She said that the witnesses were powerful and persuasive, but, pressed on whether they would convince Americans, Bass admitted to a measure of doubt. 

“I’m not sure,” she said, blaming Fox News for misrepresenting reality to its viewers on a daily basis by remaining steadfastly on Trump’s side, in particular on its much-watched prime time programs, where Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson aggressively defend him with only passing regard to fact.

As the hearing continued into the afternoon, the leading headline on FoxNews.com neatly summarized how many conservatives saw the hearing. A photo showed the three pro-impeachment witnesses. “Lectures From the Left,” the headline said.

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