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Impeachment updates: Nancy Pelosi announces House is moving forward, one day after scholars testify

Frustrated Republicans brought delays and an icy mood to the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday, as four experts in constitutional law analyzed what qualifies a president for impeachment

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Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., makes a statement at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Dec. 5, 2019. Pelosi says the House is drafting articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump. 

J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press

Update: Nancy Pelosi recommends drafting articles of impeachment.

WASHINGTON — The December chill wasn’t just a physical sensation Wednesday when a new round of impeachment hearings began in the vaulted and ornate Ways and Means Committee room.

“This is the coldest hearing room in the world,” Georgia Republican Rep. Doug Collins said to a capacity crowd of more than 200 journalists, spectators and staff, many wrapped in coats and scarves to guard against the chill. But he could have been talking about the icy mood in the room as constitutional scholars gave dueling versions of whether President Donald Trump’s dealings with Ukraine warranted impeachment.

“If what we’re talking about is not impeachable, then nothing is impeachable,” said Michael Gerhardt, a University of North Carolina law professor. Two other scholars asked to testify by panel Democrats agreed while Republicans attempted to discredit their views as biased and ill-informed.

The lone dissenting expert didn’t defend the president’s conduct, but he said that Democrats haven’t made the case that Trump should be impeached. “If the House proceeds solely on the Ukrainian allegations, this impeachment would stand out among modern impeachments as the shortest proceeding, with the thinnest evidentiary record, and the narrowest grounds ever used to impeach a president,” said Jonathan Turley, a law professor and George Washington University invited by Republicans on the panel.

The partisan chill settled in shortly after the opening gavel as frustrated Republicans delayed the proceedings with procedural votes. They repeatedly interrupted committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-New York, and the first expert witness with requests for a formal delay of the hearing and for more witnesses, such as the whistleblower whose complaint launched the impeachment inquiry, and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, who has spearheaded the impeachment to this point.

“This is not an impeachment. This is just a simple railroad job,” said Collins, the ranking Republican on the committee.

The hearing came a day after the House Intelligence Committee issued a 300-page report that accuses Trump of soliciting a foreign government to interfere in the 2020 election to his benefit and obstructing Congress’ efforts to investigate.

It was not known after the eight-hour hearing what’s next for the Judiciary Committee, which is charged with drafting potential articles of impeachment. The full House could vote on those articles by Christmas. Then, the process would move to the Senate for a trial in 2020.

Before Wednesday’s hearing, House Democrats met behind closed doors where Speaker Nancy Pelosi posed the question: “Are you ready?”

The answer was a resounding yes, according to Associated Press.

Elsewhere, Trump phoned in to the House GOP’s morning meeting attended by Vice President Mike Pence, who urged his colleagues to “turn up the heat” on House Democrats, an official familiar with his comments told The New York Times.

Politico reported that White House counsel Pat Cipollone met with Senate Republicans for lunch to plot strategy for the likely Senate trial.

“Today was a good day for President Trump and a bad day for the Democrats. The only thing the three liberal professors established at Chairman Nadler’s hearing was their political bias against the president,” White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said in a statement. “It did nothing to change the fact that, despite weeks of hearings in this sham process, the president did nothing wrong.”

A crowd of spectators filled the hearing room early, but many left during the first break, leaving empty seats as testimony delved further into a repetitive and often lofty academic discussion on the history of impeachment, the constitutional convention where impeachment was debated and whether Trump’s conduct reached the thresholds of bribery or high crimes and misdemeanors required for impeachment under the Constitution.

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Harvard Law School professor Noah Feldman testifies during a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee on the constitutional grounds for the impeachment of President Donald Trump, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019.

Alex Brandon, Associated Press

Harvard law professor Noah Feldman explained how framers of the Constitution debated whether impeachment was necessary since the president could be removed from office by voters.

“The upshot of this conversation in the constitutional convention was that the framers believed that elections were not a sufficient check on the possibility of a president who abused his power by acting in a corrupt way,” Feldman said. “They were especially worried that a president might use the power of his office to influence the electoral process in his own favor.”

Under sharp questioning by Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz, Feldman acknowledged he was initially leery of impeachment given the divisive nature of the process with an election a year away. “Until that call on July 25, I was an impeachment skeptic,” Feldman said.

The impeachment inquiry centers on a whistleblower complaint about that call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. In their conversation, Trump asked Zelenskiy for “a favor” — to investigate whether Ukraine meddled in the 2016 election and into political rival Joe Biden, whose son served on the board of a Urkainian energy company when Biden was vice president.

Stanford law professor Pamela Karlan noted during questioning that her reading of transcripts of previous testimony by witnesses appearing before the House Intelligence Committee indicated Trump’s motive in requesting the investigations was not to root out corruption in Ukraine but to “injure” a potential political opponent in the 2020 election.

“That is not politics as usual — at least not in the United States or any other mature democracy,” she said in her opening statement. “It is, instead, a cardinal reason why the Constitution contains an impeachment power. Put simply, a candidate for president should resist foreign interference in our elections, not demand it.”

Karlan drew criticism from Gaetz and the White House for naming Trump’s son in a remark intended to point out that Trump was not a monarch who can “name his son Barron but cannot make him a baron.”

“I want to apologize for what I said earlier about the president’s son,” she said later in the hearing. “It was wrong of me to do that. I wish the president would apologize, obviously, for the things that he’s done that are wrong. But I do regret having said that.”

But Karlan resisted answering Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., who asked all the witnesses to raise their hands if they voted for Trump in 2016.

“I don’t think we’re obligated to say anything,” she said.

“Not raising our hands is not an answer, sir,” Feldman added.

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George Washington University Law School professor Jonathan Turley testifies during a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee on the constitutional grounds for the impeachment of President Donald Trump, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019. From left,Harvard Law School professor Noah Feldman, Stanford Law School professor Pamela Karlan and University of North Carolina Law School professor Michael Gerhardt.

Alex Brandon, Associated Press

Turley was the only witness who divulged his voting record, saying he didn’t support Trump in his opening remarks.

But, he added, the impeachment inquiry launched in September was moving too fast and in a highly partisan environment that risks eroding the integrity of the impeachment process in the future. He urged House investigators to use the court system to determine if Trump is obstructing justice as Congress did in the impeachment proceedings against President Richard Nixon.

“I am concerned about lowering impeachment standards to fit a paucity of evidence and an abundance of anger,” he said. “That does not bode well for future presidents who are working in a country often sharply and, at times, bitterly divided.”