Congress

Nadler hints Trump impeachment inquiry could expand beyond Ukraine

House Judiciary's first impeachment hearing punctuated by partisan bickering

Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., left, takes his seat as ranking member Doug Collins, R-Ga., looks on before the start of the House Judiciary Committee hearing on the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler on Wednesday raised the possibility that the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump could be expanded beyond its current narrow scope of a July 25 phone call between Trump and the Ukrainian president.

In his opening remarks at his panel's first impeachment hearing, the New York Democrat invoked former Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

“The Russian government engaged in a sweeping and systematic campaign of interference in our elections. In the words of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, ‘the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome,’” Nadler said. “The president welcomed that interference.”

Nadler went on to recount when Trump, in the run-up to the 2016 election, asked Russia to hack Hillary Clinton, his political opponent.

"The very next day, a Russian military intelligence unit attempted to hack his political rivals,” Nadler said.

The impeachment inquiry, so far, has focused on that now-infamous July phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy during which Trump asked Kyiv for a “favor,” which witnesses in the inquiry have testified was a reference to Zelenskiy announcing an investigation into Trump’s political rival Joe Biden in exchange for a White House meeting and military aid to the Kyiv.

The top Republican on the panel Doug Collins of Georgia took issue with Nadler’s reference to the Mueller investigation.

“It’s the same, sad story,” Collins said. “We went back to a re-do of Mr. Mueller.”

Mueller earlier this year closed his investigation and declined to decide whether Trump should be prosecuted for obstruction of justice. But Mueller did not rule out that the president committed a crime.

Following his opening statement, Collins requested that House Intelligence Chairman Adam B. Schiff, who on Tuesday released his report on the impeachment probe, testify before the Judiciary Committee.

Throughout the impeachment inquiry, Republicans have called on Schiff to testify to learn whether the California Democrat coordinated with the White House whistleblower, whose complaint about the July 25 call jump-started the investigation.

Collins’ motion was tabled on a 24-17 party-line vote. Later, the hearing was punctuated by more interruptions from Republicans seeking to delay the hearing and to subpoena the whistleblower.

Partisan bickering

The hearing, convened to discuss the legal underpinnings of impeachment with four constitutional scholars, began with the same partisan sparring that punctuated the Intelligence Committees proceedings last month.

Collins argued that there was nothing new to be discovered or learned from Wednesday's hearing, highlighting the departure from the panel's traditional hearing room, framing the proceedings as a show.

“Don’t tell me this is about new evidence and new things and new stuff. We may have a new hearing room. We may have new mics and we may have new chairs that aren’t comfortable, but this is nothing new, folks. This is sad,” Collins said.

The three Democrat-called witnesses agreed that Trump’s behavior warrants impeachment.

“The president’s serious misconduct, including bribery, soliciting a personal favor from a foreign leader in exchange for his exercise of power, and obstructing justice and Congress are worse than the misconduct of any prior president,” University of North Carolina law professor Michael Gerhardt said.

Noah Feldman of Harvard Law School said that Trump’s conduct “ clearly constitutes an impeachable high crime.”

And Pamela S. Karlan of Stanford said that the president “doubled down on violating his oath to ‘faithfully execute’ the laws and to ‘protect and defend the Constitution.’”

Meanwhile, committee Republicans’ chosen witness Jonathan Turley of George Washington University said the case against Trump is the “thinnest evidentiary record, and the narrowest grounds ever used to impeach a president.”

Turley countered what he called a "boundless" definition of bribery and Democrats' suggestion that obstruction of Congress could be an article of impeachment because Trump has challenged the legitimacy of House subpoenas.

“President Trump has gone ... to the courts. He’s allowed to do that — we have three branches, not two,” Turley said. “If you impeach a president, if you make a high crime and misdemeanor out of going to the courts, it is an abuse of power. It’s your abuse of power. You are doing precisely what you’re criticizing the president for doing.”

He also argued that the legal definition of bribery is relevant to the impeachment, even if impeachment isn't strictly a legal proceeding.

“This isn’t improvisational jazz. Close enough is not good enough. If you’re going to accuse a president of bribery, you need to make it stick, because you’re trying to remove a duly elected president of the United States,” Turley said.

California Democrat Eric Swalwell attempted to discredit Turley by bringing up his role in defending a federal judge in 2010 against impeachment. That judge, Thomas Porteous, was ultimately impeached and convicted in the Senate.

“As a former prosecutor, I recognize a defense attorney trying to represent their client, especially one who has very little to work with in the way of facts,” Swalwell said of Turley. “Today you’re representing the Republicans in their defense of the president.”

“That’s not my intention, sir,” Turley responded.

Firebrand Florida Republican Matt Gaetz injected life into the hearing when he broke from the pattern of Republicans only asking the GOP witness questions and instead dug into Feldman and Karlan.

In exchanges that grew heated, Gaetz asked the Democratic witnesses about their donations to campaigns including Elizabeth Warren, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Charging through his questions to fit them into his five minutes, witnesses clamored to clarify their statements while Gaetz moved onto his next inquiry.

He hit back at a reference Karlan made earlier in the hearing to Trump’s youngest son.

“I’ll just give you one example that shows you the difference between him and a king, which is the Constitution says there can be no titles of nobility. So while the president can name his son Barron, he can’t make him a baron,” Karlan said.

Gatez said the comments about the teen were out of line and in poor taste.

“When you invoke the president’s son’s name here, when you try to make a little joke out of referencing Barron Trump, that does not lend credibility to your argument. It makes you look mean,” Gaetz told Karlan.

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