The House Judiciary Committee is moving swiftly to weigh findings by fellow lawmakers that President Donald Trump misused the power of his office for personal political gain and then obstructed Congress' investigation as possible grounds for impeachment.
Responsible for drafting articles of impeachment, the Judiciary Committee prepared Wednesday morning for its first hearing since the release of a 300-page report by Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee that found “serious misconduct” by the president.
The report did not render a judgment on whether Trump’s actions stemming from a July 25 phone call with Ukraine's president rose to the constitutional level of “high crimes and misdemeanors" warranting impeachment. That is for the full House to decide. But its findings involving Trump's efforts to seek foreign intervention in the American election process provide the basis for a House vote on impeachment and a Senate trial carrying the penalty of removal from office.
"The evidence that we have found is really quite overwhelming that the president used the power of his office to secure political favors and abuse the trust American people put in him and jeopardize our security,” Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., told The Associated Press.
“It was a difficult decision to go down this road, because it's so consequential for the country," Schiff said. But “the president was the author of his own impeachment inquiry by repeatedly seeking foreign help in his election campaigns."
Schiff added: “Americans need to understand that this president is putting his personal political interests above theirs. And that it's endangering the country."
The session Wednesday with legal scholars will delve into possible impeachable offenses, but the real focus will be on the panel, led by Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., and made up of a sometimes boisterous, sharply partisan division of lawmakers.
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In a 53-page opening statement obtained by the AP, Republican witness Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University, will say that the Democrats are bringing a "slipshod impeachment" case against the president based on secondhand information. Still, Turley doesn’t excuse the president’s behavior.
“It is not wrong because President Trump is right," according to Turley. He calls Trump's call with Ukraine “anything but 'perfect," as the president claims. “A case for impeachment could be made, but it cannot be made on this record," he says.
The remaining three witnesses, all called by Democrats, will argue for impeachment, according to statements obtained by the AP.
Michael Gerhardt of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill argues, “If Congress fails to impeach here, then the impeachment process has lost all meaning."
The political risks are high for all parties as the House presses only the fourth presidential impeachment inquiry in U.S. history.
In a statement, White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said, “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.”
Trump, attending a NATO meeting in London, called the impeachment effort by Democrats “unpatriotic” and said he wouldn't be watching Wednesday's hearing.
The "Trump-Ukraine Impeachment Inquiry Report” provides a detailed, stunning, account of a shadow diplomacy run by Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani, resulting in layers of allegations that can be distilled into specific acts, like bribery or obstruction, and the more amorphous allegation that Trump abused his power by putting his interests above the nation.
Based on two months of investigation sparked by a still-anonymous government whistleblower's complaint, the report relies heavily on testimony from current and former U.S. officials who defied White House orders not to appear.
The inquiry found that Trump "solicited the interference of a foreign government, Ukraine, to benefit his reelection," Schiff wrote in the report's preface. In doing so, the president “sought to undermine the integrity of the U.S. presidential election process, and endangered U.S. national security,” the report said. When Congress began investigating, it added, Trump obstructed the investigation like no other president in history.
Along with revelations from earlier testimony, the report included previously unreleased cell phone records raising fresh questions about Giuliani's interactions with the top Republican on the intelligence panel, Rep. Devin Nunes of California, and the White House. Nunes declined to comment. Schiff said his panel would continue its probe.
Republicans defended the president in a 123-page rebuttal claiming Trump never intended to pressure Ukraine when he asked for a “favor” — investigations of Democrats and Joe Biden. They say the military aid the White House was withholding was not being used as leverage, as Democrats claim — and besides, the $400 million was ultimately released, although only after a congressional outcry. Democrats, they argue, just want to undo the 2016 election.
For Republicans falling in line behind Trump, the inquiry is simply a “hoax.” Trump criticized the House for pushing forward with the proceedings while he was overseas, a breach of political decorum that traditionally leaves partisan differences at the water’s edge.
House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy called on Democrats to end the impeachment “nightmare." He said, “They’re concerned if they do not impeach this president they cant beat him in an election."
Democrats once hoped to sway Republicans to consider Trump's removal, but they are now facing a ever-hardening partisan split over the swift-moving proceedings that are dividing Congress and the country.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi faces a critical moment of her leadership as she steers the process ahead after initially resisting the impeachment inquiry, warning it was too divisive for the country and required bipartisan support.
Possible grounds for impeachment are focused on whether Trump abused his office as he pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to open investigations into Trump’s political rivals. At the time, Trump was withholding $400 million in military aid, jeopardizing key support as Ukraine faces an aggressive Russia at its border.
The report also accuses Trump of obstruction, becoming the “first and only'' president in U.S. history to "openly and indiscriminately" defy the House's constitutional authority to conduct the impeachment proceedings by instructing officials not to comply with subpoenas for documents and testimony.
For Democrats marching into what is now a largely partisan process, the political challenge if they proceed is to craft the impeachment articles in a way that will draw the most support from their ranks and not expose Pelosi’s majority to messy divisions, especially as Republicans stand lockstep with the president.
While liberal Democrats are pushing the party to go further and incorporate the findings from former special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election and other actions by Trump, more centrist and moderate Democrats prefer to stick with the Ukraine matter as a simpler narrative that Americans understand.
Democrats could begin drafting articles of impeachment against the president in a matter of days, with a Judiciary Committee vote next week. The full House could vote by Christmas. Then the matter moves to the Senate for a trial in 2020.
The White House declined an invitation to participate Wednesday, with counsel Pat Cipollone denouncing the proceedings as a “baseless and highly partisan inquiry.” Cipollone, who will brief Senate Republicans on Wednesday, left open the question of whether White House officials would participate in additional House hearings.
House rules provide the president and his attorneys the right to cross-examine witnesses and review evidence before the committee, but little ability to bring forward witnesses of their own.
Associated Press writers Zeke Miller, Colleen Long, Eric Tucker and Jill Colvin contributed to this report.