By David Morgan and Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump’s actions to prod Ukraine to pursue investigations that could benefit him politically represent impeachable offences, constitutional law experts called by Democrats testified to the U.S. Congress on Wednesday as lawmakers laid the groundwork for formal charges against Trump.
At a House of Representatives Judiciary Committee hearing featuring political theatrics, three law professors chosen by the Democrats made clear that they believed Trump’s actions constituted impeachable offences including abuse of power, bribery, obstruction of Congress and obstruction of justice.
A law professor selected by Trump’s fellow Republicans disagreed, saying the Democratic-led impeachment inquiry was “slipshod” and “rushed” and lacked testimony from people with direct knowledge of the relevant events, adding that current evidence does not show Trump committed “a clear criminal act.”
As Trump headed toward possible impeachment in the Democratic-controlled House within weeks, Republican lawmakers repeatedly tried to interrupt the hearing by raising objections and points of order.
The impeachment inquiry, launched in September, focuses on Trump’s request on Ukraine to conduct investigations that could harm Democratic political rival Joe Biden. Collins said the impeachment drive – or as he called it a “railroad job” – was motivated by the deep-seated hatred Democrats feel toward Trump since he won the 2016 election.
The hearing was the committee’s first to examine whether Trump’s actions qualify as “high crimes and misdemeanours” punishable by impeachment under the U.S. Constitution. The panel would draft any articles of impeachment – formal charges – against Trump. If the House approves such charges, the Senate then would hold a trial on whether to remove Trump from office.
Trump has denied wrongdoing.
In London for a NATO meeting, Trump called a report by House Democrats released on Tuesday that laid out possible grounds for impeachment a “joke” and appeared to question the patriotism of the Democrats, asking, “Do they in fact love our country?”
The inquiry’s focus 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 promoted by Trump’s allies that Ukraine, not Russia, meddled in the 2016 U.S. election.
Hunter Biden had joined the board of Ukrainian energy company Burisma while his father was U.S. vice president. Trump has accused the Bidens of corruption without offering evidence. They have denied wrongdoing.
Harvard University law professor Noah Feldman, called by the Democrats, testified that Trump’s conduct embodies the concern expressed by the Constitution’s 18th century authors “that a sitting president would corruptly abuse the powers of office to distort the outcome of a presidential election in his favour.”
“If we cannot impeach a president who abuses his office for personal advantage, we no longer live in a democracy. We live in a monarchy or we live under a dictatorship,” Feldman added.
Stanford University law school professor Pamela Karlan said Trump abused his power by demanding foreign involvement in a U.S. election, adding that his actions “struck at the very heart of what makes this country the republic to which we pledge allegiance.”
“While the president can name his son Barron, he can’t make him a baron,” Karlan added, prompting a Twitter post by White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham calling the professor “classless” for using the president’s son as a “punchline.”
Karlan said Trump’s actions constitute bribery as understood by the Constitution’s framers. Asked whether Trump’s demands on Ukraine established the high crime of bribery, Karlan said, “Yes they do.”
‘A KING ON AMERICANSOIL’
George Washington University Law School Professor Jonathan Turley – the only witness chosen by the Republicans, though he said he voted against Trump in 2016 – disagreed that the president’s actions constituted bribery and said the evidence does not adequately support the Democrats’ allegations.
Turley admonished Trump over the Zelenskiy call – disagreeing with the president that it was “perfect” – and said leveraging U.S. military aid to investigate a political opponent “if proven, can be an impeachable offence.”
University of North Carolina law professor Michael Gerhardt appeared to criticize Republicans for “leaving unchecked a president’s assaults on our Constitution.”
“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 said.
Democrats have accused Trump of abusing his power by withholding $391 million in security aid to Ukraine – a U.S. ally facing Russian aggression – as leverage to pressure Kiev into conducting the two investigations politically beneficial to Trump and for granting Zelenskiy a coveted White House visit.
The money, approved by Congress, was provided to Ukraine in September only after the controversy had spilled into public view.
Republicans complained that the inquiry lacked testimony from people with direct knowledge of the events. Trump has instructed current and former members of his administration not to testify or produce documents, leading senior officials like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to defy House subpoenas.
No president has ever been removed from office through impeachment, though Republican Richard Nixon resigned in 1974 after the House began the impeachment process in the Watergate corruption scandal. Two other presidents were impeached by the House but acquitted by the Senate.
The committee could soon recommend articles of impeachment against Trump, setting up a possible vote by the full House before Christmas, followed by a Senate trial in January. Republicans, who control the Senate, have shown little appetite for removing Trump.
(Reporting by David Morgan and Patricia Zengerle; Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu, Richard Cowan, Lisa Lambert and Susan Cornwell in Washington and Steve Holland in London; Writing by Alistair Bell; Editing by Ross Colvin and Will Dunham)