WASHINGTON (CN) – Even by the standards that have greeted the uncommonly contentious impeachment process, the House hearing on Wednesday to mark up the articles introduced by Democrats this week turned poisonous quickly.
The tone was set before the hearing began with a trio of placards displayed by House Republicans behind the back row of the House Judiciary Committee, declaring of the impeachment process “The outcome is predetermined” and branding the Democratic chairs who drew up the articles the “Coastal Impeachment Squad.”
Once proceedings began, Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler started the affair innocently enough with an opening statement that culminated with an olive branch extended to his Republican colleagues.
“I know you,” Nadler told his peers. “I have worked with many of you for years. I consider you to be good and decent public servants.
“I know this moment must be difficult, but you still have a choice,” he added indulgently, urging the House Republicans to resist the political pressures of the moment.
More than 100 hours of testimony from 17 congressional witnesses bolstered Democrats’ allegations that Trump attempted to strong-arm neophyte Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to do him a political favor in return for military assistance that his country desperately needed.
“I hope that none of us attempt to justify behavior that we know in our heart is wrong,” Nadler concluded. “I hope that we are able to work together to hold this president—or any president—accountable for breaking his most basic obligations to the country and to its citizens.”
The Judiciary Committee’s top Republican answered that sentiment with fiery opprobrium, in a monologue that appeared to compare the Democrats’ claims to a propaganda technique favored by Adolf Hitler: The Big Lie.
“What’s the Big Lie?” Representative Doug Collins asked. “It’s the one Democrats have told the American people for the last three years. The Big Lie is that the ends justify the means. The Big Lie is that a sham impeachment is okay because the threat is so great. The Big Lie is that political expedience is honorable and justifiable.”
The tone could not have been more different when Texas Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democrat, took five minutes to deliver remarks that appeared to shake Louisiana Democrat Representative Cedric Richmond: the congressman leaned back in his chair and mouthed “wow” when she concluded.
Jackson Lee, a black woman sitting on the House Judiciary Committee 156 years after slavery ended in the United States, said Wednesday night that she will vote to pass both articles of impeachment and for reasons rooted in her deep conviction that America is and should remain a democracy where its leaders are subject to checks and balances.
“The bright light of this constitutional democracy dimmed because of his acts,” Jackson Lee said. “We must reject his abuse of power.”
Calling the Republicans’ tactics a “distraction,” the representative said she would fulfill her duty by resting on two simple principles.
“The America we know and love, it cannot survive this abuse. I put my faith in trust and truth. That is why we stand tonight for America’s future,” she said.
Another Democratic lawmaker, Representative Karen Bass of California, offered a sharp rebuke of Trump’s conduct by placing a finer point on the international implications of his impeachment.
“The world is watching how we handle this crisis,” Bass said. “There are nations who are trying to re-establish democratic government after years of autocratic rule that are watching.”
Such nations, Bass said, would recognize such developments as Trump attacking fact witnesses like former U.S. ambassador Marie Yovanovitch. The congresswoman added that this should raise a question in the mind of any person watching the impeachment unfold — within and outside of America.
Republican critics have repeatedly referred to the House-authorized inquiry as a “coup” or “hoax,” but Bass said that people around the world recognize such rhetoric as overblown and “autocratic.”
“This is not a coup, and it is irresponsible to label a constitutional process a coup,” she said.
The articles of impeachment Democrats introduced do not explicitly mention the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election or evidence Trump obstructed that probe, but the first of the two articles does hint at Trump’s “previous invitations of foreign interference in United States elections.”
On Wednesday, Representative Ted Deutch, D-Fla., noted the Ukraine scandal that has led the House to the brink of impeaching Trump does not stand alone.
“He welcomed Russian interference in the 2016 election, he solicited interference by Ukraine and by China in our 2020 election,” Deutch said. “The ongoing pattern of the president’s abuse of power, his obstruction of investigations – refusing to turn over even one document – that’s what requires us to act now.”
It was a theme echoed by Representative Jamie Raskin, who called Trump’s Ukraine actions continuing crimes in progress.
“In America, elections belong to the people, not to the president, and that’s because the government belongs to the people,” the Maryland Democrat said. “It doesn’t belong to the president.”
Raskin expressed a fear that inviting foreign governments to interfere in U.S. elections could become what he called the new normal.
“If you make yourself a sheep, Ben Franklin said, the wolves will eat you,” Raskin said.
Sitting next to him, Representative Pramila Jayapal emphasized her immigrant story in chalking up the U.S. reputation as a Shining City on the Hill to three words: “We the people.”
Defining her work as defending the Constitution, the Washington Democrat said what happened is not a mystery.
“The president admitted to his wrongdoing and corrupt intent on national television,” she said. “The president is the smoking gun.” She added later: “The smoking gun is already reloaded, and whether it gets fired, that’s up to us.”
David Sklansky, a professor at Stanford Law School, said while Democrats made a political judgment to dodge explicit reference to the Mueller probe, the broad reference in the first article might give Democrats space to introduce evidence of prior Trump actions that could help explain what he is accused of doing in Ukraine.
Just as a prosecutor handling a bank robbery trial might seek to introduce evidence of how the defendant committed previous robberies not explicitly at issue in the case, Democrats could present evidence of Trump inviting foreign influence in elections of obstructing Congress, Sklansky said.
“They’re not including the Russia activities or the obstruction of justice with regard to the Mueller investigation in the formal articles of impeachment, but they’re leaving the door open to introducing evidence of those matters in the impeachment trial as a way of making intelligible what he did with Ukraine,” Sklansky said in an interview.