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Impeachment advances as Trump is accused of misconduct, obstruction

The House Judiciary Committee takes up impeachment Wednesday amid dueling reports from the Intelligence Committee and House Republicans, while a top State Department official disputes a key Trump defense

SHARE Impeachment advances as Trump is accused of misconduct, obstruction
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U.S. President Donald Trump leaves 10 Downing Street in London after attending a NATO reception hosted by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2019. U.S. President Donald Trump and his NATO counterparts were gathering in London Tuesday to mark the alliance’s 70th birthday amid deep tensions as spats between leaders expose a lack of unity that risks undermining military organization’s credibility.

Alastair Grant, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The impeachment investigation of President Donald Trump advances to a new stage Wednesday, as the House Judiciary Committee meets to hear expert testimony as to what constitutes an impeachable offense.

This comes after a party-line vote late Tuesday approved a report that accuses Trump of soliciting a foreign government to interfere in the 2020 election to his benefit and obstructing Congress’ efforts to investigate.

Following the closed-door vote, members of the House Intelligence Committee emerging from the secured hearing room in the basement of the Capitol Visitors Center said little as they hurried to the House chamber for votes on other bills.

“No surprises,” said Utah Rep. Chris Stewart, who noted eight GOP proposed amendments to the report were rejected by a party-line vote. He could not disclose the substance of the amendments as committee proceedings are confidential.

The committee released its findings earlier in a 300-page document after more than two months of investigations and hearings delving into the president’s dealings with Ukraine.

“The president engaged in this course of conduct for the benefit of his own presidential reelection, to harm the election prospects of a political rival, and to influence our nation’s upcoming presidential election to his advantage,” the report stated. “In doing so, the president placed his own personal and political interests above the national interests of the United States, sought to undermine the integrity of the U.S. presidential election process, and endangered U.S. national security.”

Read the House Intelligence Committee’s full report.

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House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., speaks with reporters after a closed-door session with his Democratic members to prepare for a public hearing Wednesday with legal experts to examine the constitutional grounds for the impeachment of President Donald Trump, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2019.

J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press

The House Judiciary Committee will use the findings to begin a new round of hearings Wednesday. The Judiciary proceedings will consider drafting articles of impeachment that the House could vote on before Christmas. If the House votes to impeach, the Senate must hold a trial that would either acquit or remove the president.

Wednesday’s hearing will address constitutional grounds for impeachment. Democrats invited three witnesses — Noah Feldman of Harvard Law School, Pamela S. Karlan of Stanford Law School and Michael J. Gerhardt of the University of North Carolina Law School — and Republicans invited Jonathan Turley of the George Washington University Law School. All are scholars of constitutional law.

Trump is the fourth president to undergo an impeachment proceeding in the House. No president has ever been removed from office.

A dramatic account

The committee report makes its case in a dramatic account that begins with a phone call between Trump and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, in which Trump asked him “a favor” to investigate alleged Ukraine meddling in the 2016 election and political rival Joe Biden, whose son had a lucrative board position on a Ukrainian energy company while Biden was vice president.

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House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2019.

Susan Walsh, Associated Press

“Our investigation determined that this telephone call was neither the start nor the end of President Trump’s efforts to bend U.S. foreign policy for his personal gain,” the report stated. “Rather, it was a dramatic crescendo within a months-long campaign driven by President Trump in which senior U.S. officials, including the Vice President, the Secretary of State, the Acting Chief of Staff, the Secretary of Energy, and others were either knowledgeable of or active participants in an effort to extract from a foreign nation the personal political benefits sought by the President.”

About a third of the report details White House efforts to allegedly obstruct the inquiry itself — with varying degrees of success — by refusing to comply or impeding committee requests and subpoenas for documents and testimony from administration officials.

“Donald Trump is the first President in the history of the United States to seek to completely obstruct an impeachment inquiry,” the report stated. “He has publicly and repeatedly rejected the authority of Congress to conduct oversight of his actions and has directly challenged the authority of the House to conduct an impeachment inquiry into his actions regarding Ukraine.”

Still, the Committee did not make any specific recommendations for articles of impeachment.

“It will be up to the Congress to determine whether these acts rise to the level of an impeachable offense, whether the president shall be held to account, and whether we as a nation are committed to the rule of law,” Rep. Adam Schiff said in a joint statement with the chairwoman and chairman of the Oversight and Foreign Affairs committees that drafted the report.

“With the release of our report, the American people can review for themselves the evidence detailing President Trump’s betrayal of the public trust.”

White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham said in a statement that “Chairman Schiff and the Democrats utterly failed to produce any evidence of wrongdoing by President Trump.” She said the report “reads like the ramblings of a basement blogger straining to prove something when there is evidence of nothing,” according to The Associated Press.

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The report from Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee on the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump is photographed in Washington, Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2019.

Jon Elswick, Associated Press

A preemptive rebuttal

House Republicans issued a preemptive response to the anticipated committee findings Monday night in a 123-page report of their own. The GOP report outlined their defense strategy, accusing Democrats of attempting to “undo the will of the people” who elected Trump and calling the president’s actions toward Ukraine “entirely prudent.”

The GOP report points to a rough transcript of the July 25 call between Trump and Zelenskiy provided by the administration that reflects a less sinister conversation filled with “laughter, pleasantries and cordiality” between the two leaders.  

“President Zelenskiy has said publicly and repeatedly that he felt no pressure. President Trump has said publicly and repeatedly that he exerted no pressure,” the GOP report said. “Even examining evidence beyond the presidential phone call shows no quid pro quo, bribery, extortion or abuse of power.”

Instead, the Republican report argued, evidence showed Trump holds a “deep-seated, genuine and reasonable skepticism of Ukraine due to its history of pervasive corruption,” and he wants European allies to shoulder more of the foreign aid burden.

“All of these factors bear on the president’s state of mind and help to explain the president’s actions toward Ukraine and President Zelenskiy,” the report stated. “Understood in this proper context, the president’s initial hesitation to meet with President Zelenskiy or to provide U.S. taxpayer-funded security assistance to Ukraine without thoughtful review is entirely prudent.”

Republicans contend the hearings didn’t produce evidence of “bribery, extortion, or any high crime or misdemeanor” needed under the Constitution to impeach a president.

“The Democrats’ impeachment inquiry is not the organic outgrowth of serious misconduct; it is an orchestrated campaign to upend our political system,” the GOP report stated. “The Democrats are trying to impeach a duly elected president based on the accusations and assumptions of unelected bureaucrats who disagreed with President Trump’s policy initiatives and processes.”

An early appearance in the Senate

The subject of impeachment made an early appearance in the Senate Tuesday, when a top State Department official testifying before the Foreign Relations Committee undermined a key element of the GOP’s defense.

The GOP report supported Trump’s belief that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election, citing news articles about government officials criticizing then-candidate Trump.

But David Hale, undersecretary of state for political affairs, told the committee he was not aware of any evidence that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 U.S. election.

Responding to questions by Democrats on the Senate panel, the No. 3 person in the State Department also said he was not aware of a U.S. policy to investigate business dealings of Biden’s family in Ukraine while Biden was vice president or if the president’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, is still involved in “diplomatic conversations” with Ukraine.

“I think it’s important to acknowledge those facts because part of the defense of the president’s actions will be that those requests were in fact appropriate,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., explaining why he asked Hale about the Bidens and Giuliani. “I think it’s relevant that since the uncovering of those demands have been made they are no longer part of official U.S. policy.”

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., was more pointed in his opening remarks, blasting Trump and others who have called Russian interference “a hoax.”

“During the Cold War, those who unwittingly broadcast Soviet propaganda were called useful idiots,” he said. “I don’t know what you call those today in the administration or here in Congress who knowingly spout Kremlin lies. Whatever it is, it does a lot of damage.”

Asked if Russian interference in the 2016 election was a hoax, Hale said, “no.”

Menendez cited former National Security Council adviser Fiona Hill‘s testimony in the impeachment inquiry when she called Ukrainian interference a “fictional narrative” perpetrated by Russia to distract from its meddling in the election, which has been confirmed by U.S. intelligence agencies.

“Do you have any reason to disagree with Dr. Hill?” Menendez asked Hale.

“I do not,” Hale said.

The president did get some support on the Senate panel from Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who noted the Trump administration is the first to send weapons to Ukraine to help defend against Russian aggression.

Permeating the capital

The seemingly off-subject queries show how the fast-moving impeachment proceedings are permeating the nation’s capital. Outside the hearing, Republican Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, also disputed the allegation that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election.

“I saw no evidence from our intelligence community, nor from the representatives today from the Department of State, that there is any evidence of any kind that suggests that Ukraine interfered in our elections,” Romney told reporters, according to The Washington Post. “We have ample evidence that Russia interfered in our elections.”

Others in Utah’s congressional delegation either declined to comment or said they would respond after reading the committee report and the Republican response.

The president was less muted.

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President Donald and first lady Melania Trump arrive at London Stansted Airport to attend the NATO summit, Monday, Dec. 2, 2019, in London.

Evan Vucci, Associated Press

“I think it’s very unpatriotic of the Democrats to put on a performance,” Trump said at the opening of a NATO leaders’ meeting Tuesday in London. “I think it’s a bad thing for our country.”

The administration has declined an invitation to participate in Wednesday’s initial hearing before the House Judiciary Committee. White House Counsel Pat Cipollone denounced the proceedings as a “baseless and highly partisan inquiry” in a letter to Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y.

The AP reported that Cipollone’s letter applied only to the Wednesday hearing, and he demanded more information from Democrats on how they intended to conduct further hearings before Trump would decide whether to participate.

In a recent interview with Time magazine, Zelenskiy said he never talked to Trump “from the position of a quid pro quo,” but he didn’t say Trump did nothing wrong. In fact, he criticized Trump for withholding the military aid, the Associated Press reported.

With Ukraine at war with Russia, he said, its partners “can’t go blocking anything for us.”