Three constitutional scholars said Wednesday that President Trump’s dealings with Ukraine rise to the level of impeachment, while the sole Republican witness, also a respected law professor, argued that Democrats hadn’t proved their case, were rushing, and were at risk of lowering the impeachment standard for future presidents.
Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University and the sole Republican witness at the first House Judiciary Committee impeachment hearing, cautioned against rushing impeachment, saying the evidence so far does not support extreme action.
“If the House proceeds solely on the Ukraine 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,” he said.
The three law professors selected by the Democrats unanimously agreed Mr. Trump’s actions warranted impeachment and removal from office.
“If what we are talking about is not impeachable, then nothing is impeachable,” said Michael Gerhardt, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “This is precisely the misconduct that the framers created the Constitution, including impeachment, to protect against.”
The impeachment push moved to the Judiciary Committee on Wednesday after the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence approved along party lines a report declaring that Mr. Trump abused his authority, an impeachable offense.
Democrats say Mr. Trump withheld a White House meeting and military aid from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in exchange for an investigation into 2020 Democratic presidential front-runner Joseph R. Biden and his son Hunter. The aid eventually was released without any probe.
Mr. Trump has denied any wrongdoing, repeatedly defending his July 25 call with Mr. Zelensky, during which he pressed the Ukrainian president to investigate the Bidens, as “perfect.”
The White House reiterated Wednesday evening that Mr. Trump did nothing wrong, calling the impeachment hearings a “pathetic and desperate charade.”
“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 [Jerrold] Nadler’s hearing was their political bias against the president. It did nothing to change the fact that, despite weeks of hearings in this sham process, the president did nothing wrong,” press secretary Stephanie Grisham said in a statement.
Wednesday’s hearing at times mirrored a law school lecture rather a congressional hearing as the witnesses debated the Constitution’s limits on executive power and what amounts to “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
“If we cannot impeach a president who uses his power for personal advantage, we no longer live in a democracy,” said Noah Feldman, a Harvard Law School professor. “We live in a monarchy and dictatorship.”
Mr. Turley insisted Democrats had thrown constitutional standards aside in their zeal to remove the president. He pointed out that the Intelligence Committee report describes the Zelensky phone call as bribery, an impeachable offense. But he said the July 25 phone call falls well short of the legal definition of bribery.
“This isn’t improvisational jazz — close isn’t good enough,” he said. “If you’re going to accuse a president of bribery, you need to make it stick because you are trying to remove a duly elected president of the United States.”
He also urged Democrats not to jump the gun on impeachment “on the basis of conjecture.”
“Not on this schedule,” he told lawmakers. “I’m not prejudging what your record would show but if you rush this impeachment, you are going to leave half the country behind. And certainly that’s not what the framers wanted.”
The scholars weren’t the only ones sparring in the more-than-eight-hour hearing. Mr. Nadler vowed to move “swiftly” on articles of impeachment if warranted, but signaled that was where Congress was headed.
“If it is true that President Trump has committed an impeachable offense — or multiple impeachable offenses, then we must move swiftly to do our duty and charge him accordingly,” the New York Democrat said.
Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the committee’s top Republican, however, said the inquiry was akin to a political hit job, saying the Democrats have offered no new evidence.
“This is not impeachment. This is simply a railroad job and today is a waste of time,” he said.
One of the Democrats’ witnesses caused a furor when she referred to President Trump’s 13-year-old son, Barron, to make a point about the limits of presidential power.
Pamela Karlan, a Stanford Law professor, explained the Constitution curbs presidential authority, while kings have virtually unlimited power.
“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,” Ms. Karlan said to laughter and applause.
She later apologized after members of the Trump family and the White House slammed the comment. First lady Melania Trump, Barron’s mother, said Ms. Karlan should be “ashamed.” Donald Trump Jr., Barron’s half-brother, called the comment “grotesque.”