The House Judiciary Committee held its first public impeachment hearing today, assembling a panel of four constitutional law professors to discuss the historical and constitutional grounds for impeaching a president. The dialogue frequently strayed into technical and esoteric territory, and included references to two-hundred-year-old dictionaries, James Madison's notes from the Constitutional Convention, and the writings of sixteenth-century English philosopher Thomas More. It was as close to attending a law school lecture as one can get without taking the LSAT and paying a tuition deposit.
For the most part, the witnesses seemed genuinely bewildered by the apparent necessity of explaining to lawmakers why Donald Trump's obviously impeachable misconduct is, in fact, impeachable misconduct. "The classic form of the high crime and misdemeanor of abuse of office is using the office of the presidency for personal advantage or gain," said Harvard Law School professor Noah Feldman, one of the Democratic witnesses, in his opening statement. "Soliciting a foreign government to investigate an electoral rival for personal gain on its own constitutes an impeachable high crime and misdemeanor." Or, as Stanford Law School professor Pam Karlan put it, "A candidate for president should resist foreign interference in our elections, not demand it." A professorial hypothetical illustrated her point nicely.
The Democrats' final witness, University of North Carolina School of Law professor Michael Gerhardt, framed the stakes of the inquiry in stark terms: "If Congress fails to impeach here, then the impeachment process has lost all meaning."
The lone witness called by Republicans, George Washington University Law School professor Jonathan Turley, was not especially successful in defending the president's conduct. His line of argument centered less on the substance of the allegations than on the pace of the impeachment proceedings, and on the effort to wrap the inquiry within a matter of weeks. "I believe that this process has raised serious and legitimate issues for investigation," Turley wrote in a single-spaced, 53-page opening statement. (Mercifully, he read only portions of it during his allotted time for speaking.) "Yet moving forward primarily or exclusively with the Ukraine controversy on this record would be as precarious as it would [be] premature." Turley also a delivered a plea for cooler heads to prevail, punctuated by a well-rehearsed, poorly-executed joke about the family goldendoodle's emotional state.
When Turley did address substance, the thrust of his argument was not necessarily that the president did nothing wrong, but instead that the evidence, at present, is not sufficient to remove Trump from office. "His call was anything but 'perfect,' and his reference to the Bidens was highly inappropriate," Turley wrote in his opening statement.
Under questioning from Democratic counsel Norm Eisen, he conceded that, as he recently opined in the Wall Street Journal, that impeachment does not require the impeached person commit an actual crime. Instead, Turley argued, without the testimony of people like former national security advisor John Bolton, acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, and freelance diplomat Rudy Giuliani, impeachment "will proceed on a record composed of a relatively small number of witnesses with largely second-hand knowledge of the position." The House Republicans' official Twitter account seized on this point to argue that Democrats are trying to do too much, too soon, and without enough evidence in tow.
Turley is correct to note that the testimony of the aforementioned individuals would strengthen the case for impeachment—or, at the very least, clarify the scope of what Trump did. And Turley's objections to the speed of the inquiry might be compelling if House Democrats were purposefully excluding Mulvaney and Bolton and company from the process.
But throughout the impeachment inquiry, Trump has worked to prevent these individuals and other members of his inner circle from sharing what they know with lawmakers. Giuliani and vice president Mike Pence defied congressional subpoenas for key documents. So has the Office of Management and Budget, an agency led by Mulvaney. Before the public impeachment hearings even began, White House counsel Pat Cipollone sent a letter to Democratic lawmakers vowing that the administration would not cooperate with any aspect of the inquiry, which they decried as "baseless," "unprecedented," and "unconstitutional." Lawsuits seeking to compel appearances of members of Trump's inner circle could take months for federal courts to resolve. Bolton, in particular, has vowed not to testify unless a judge orders it.
At one point, Florida congressman and reliably shouty Trump defender Matt Gaetz asked the panelists to raise a hand if they had "personal knowledge of a single material fact" contained in Intelligence Committee chair Adam Schiff's final impeachment report. None of the law professors raised their hand, of course—a stunt Gaetz intended to undermine their credibility, but that mostly just reiterated the glaring absence of witnesses who could testify about their personal knowledge, if they were willing to do so. The fact is that if Democrats were to wait for the legal process to run its course, their impeachment powers would be, in the meantime, functionally useless. With the 2020 election fast approaching, Democrats have decided to move forward with what they've got.
Besides, as Gerhardt noted, obstruction of Congress is an impeachable act in its own right, and defying lawful orders makes impeachment more appropriate, not less. "There has never been anything like the president's refusal to comply with subpoenas from this body," he told lawmakers. "[The subpoenas] have the force of law to them, and this is something that every president has complied with"—except, he added, for President Nixon, who is probably not someone to whom Trump wants to be compared right now. "The full-scale obstruction of those subpoenas, I think, torpedoes separation of powers, and therefore, your only recourse is to, in a sense, protect your institutional prerogatives," Gerhardt said. "And that would include impeachment." If there is any insufficiency in the evidence, in other words, blame lies more with the administration actively withholding it than it does with anyone else.
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Originally Appeared on GQ