WASHINGTON, Dec 4 — Three constitutional law experts called by Democrats will testify today that President Donald Trump’s actions concerning Ukraine represented impeachable offences as the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee began proceedings expected to end in charges against Trump.
A fourth law professor, chosen by Republican lawmakers, said in prepared testimony that the impeachment inquiry lacked testimony from people with direct knowledge of the events and that current evidence did not show that Trump had committed “a clear criminal act,” according to written opening remarks prepared for the committee.
An impeachment inquiry launched by the Democratic-led House in September focuses on the Republican president’s request that Ukraine announce investigations that could harm Democratic political rival Joe Biden.
After more than two months of investigation, the committee will hold a hearing to examine whether Trump’s actions qualify as the “high crimes and misdemeanours” punishable by impeachment under the US Constitution. If the House approves articles of impeachment — formal charges — then Senate then would hold a trial on whether to remove Trump from office.
The committee held its first hearing a day after the three Democratic-led committees leading the inquiry issued a report accusing Trump of abusing his office in a bid to help secure his re-election in 2020.
As a first step, the Judiciary Committee will seek insights from four law professors on what constitutes an impeachable offence and how Trump’s actions compare with those of two former presidents — Republican Richard Nixon, who resigned after the House launched the impeachment process, and Democrat Bill Clinton, who was impeached by the House but not removed by the Senate.
Today’s hearing could offer plenty of political theatrics between Democrats and Trump’s Republican allies.
The three professors called by Democrats made clear they believed Trump’s actions constituted impeachable offences.
“The president’s conduct described by the testimony embodies the (Constitution’s) framers’ concern that a sitting president would corruptly abuse the powers of office to distort the outcome of a presidential election in his favour,” Harvard University law professor Noah Feldman said in his prepared testimony.
Pamela Karlan of Stanford University law school said Trump abused his power by demanding foreign involvement in a US election, adding that the president’s actions “struck at the very heart of what makes this country the ‘republic’ to which we pledge allegiance.”
‘A king on American soil’
University of North Carolina Professor Michael Gerhardt also said the president committed “several impeachable offences.”
Gerhardt also appeared to admonish Republicans.
“No member of this House should ever want his or her legacy to be having left unchecked a president’s assaults on our Constitution,” Gerhardt said.
“If Congress fails to impeach here, 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. No one, not even the president, is beyond the reach of our Constitution and our laws,” Gerhardt added.
The focus of the inquiry is a July 25 telephone call in which Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to open an investigation into Biden and his son Hunter Biden and into a discredited theory that Ukraine, not Russia, meddled in the 2016 US election.
Hunter Biden had joined the board of Ukrainian energy company Burisma while his father was US vice president. Trump has accused the Bidens of corruption without offering evidence. They have denied wrongdoing.
George Washington University Law School Professor Jonathan Turley, the only witness chosen by the Republicans, said the current evidence does not adequately support the Democrats’ allegations against Trump.
Still, Turley admonished Trump over the call to Zelenskiy and said leveraging US military aid to investigate a political opponent “if proven, can be an impeachable offence.”
Democrats have accused Trump of abusing his power by withholding US$391 million (RM1.6 billion) in security aid to Ukraine — a vulnerable US ally facing Russian aggression — as leverage to pressure Kiev into conducting investigations politically beneficial to Trump.
The money — approved by the US Congress to help Ukraine combat Russia-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country — was provided to Ukraine in September only after the controversy had spilled into public view.
The committee could move quickly in the coming weeks to recommend articles of impeachment against Trump, setting up a possible vote by the full House before Christmas, followed by a trial in the Senate in January. Republicans, who control the Senate, have shown little appetite for removing Trump from office.
Democrats concluded in a 300-page report by the House Intelligence Committee yesterday that Trump solicited Ukraine to undertake investigations that would benefit him politically.
He also undermined national security and orchestrated an unprecedented effort to obstruct Congress, the report by the Democratic-led committee charged.
Trump has denied wrongdoing and called the investigation a “witch hunt.”
“The president has shown us his pattern of conduct. If we do not act to hold him in check now, President Trump will almost certainly try again to solicit interference in the election for his personal, political benefit,” Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat, said in his opening remarks at the hearing.
Representative Doug Collins, the committee’s top Republican, blasted Democrats, saying in his opening statement, “This is not an impeachment. This is a simple railroad job.”
The report, which largely ended the impeachment inquiry’s investigative phase that began on September 24, appeared to lay the groundwork for at least two articles of impeachment: abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.
A 110-page House Republican report released on Monday that said the probe uncovered no evidence of an impeachable offence.
Like the president, Republicans maintain that the Democratic investigation is a politically motivated sham, with evidence cherry-picked by the lead investigator, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff.
Weeks of testimony before Schiff’s committee led Democrats to conclude that Trump pressured Ukraine to agree to the investigations publicly by withholding nearly US$400 million in US security aid and a meeting at the White House for President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
Republicans contend that Ukraine got the aid and Zelenskiy met with Trump without the Ukrainians agreeing to conduct the investigations. — Reuters