WASHINGTON (CN) – The ongoing impeachment inquiry transformed into a law class Wednesday as the House Judiciary Committee heard from four professors on the legal basis for bringing charges against President Donald Trump.
Here are key takeaways from Day 1 of the hearings that are expected to form the basis of articles of impeachment.
Obstruction Comes to the Fore
While still undeniably focused on the allegation that Trump abused his office to pressure a foreign country into investigating his top political rival, Democrats also made it clear Wednesday that the new phase of proceedings before the House Judiciary Committee will tackle the orders from the White House that kept key witnesses from appearing last month before their Intelligence Committee colleagues.
Representative Jerry Nadler, the Democratic chair of the Judiciary Committee, mentioned obstruction in his opening statement, saying Trump’s obstinacy goes beyond other efforts from past presidents, including Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, to keep documents from Congress.
“In 1998, President Clinton physically gave his blood; President Trump by contrast has refused to produce a single document and directed every witness not to testify,” Nadler said.
Following opening statements, Norm Eisen, counsel for Democrats, specifically sought input from the panel of law professors on whether the president’s conduct constituted obstruction of justice and obstruction of Congress.
Eisen aimed most of his questions at the three witnesses called by Democrats — UNC School of Law professor Michael Gerhardt, Stanford Law School professor Pamela Karlan and Harvard Law professor Noah Feldman. For professor Jonathan Turley, the Republican witness from George Washington University Law School, Eisen asked only one yes-or-no question.
Eisen’s questions even stretched back to how Trump responded to and arguably obstructed special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
The Democrats’ witnesses agreed there was plenty of evidence that Trump has committed obstruction.
Gerhardt said when viewed in totality Trump’s efforts to obstruct investigations into his conduct have gone beyond what led the House to the brink of impeaching Nixon before his resignation.
“The third article of impeachment approved by the House Judiciary Committee against President Nixon charged him with misconduct because he had failed to comply with four legislative subpoenas,” Gerhardt said. “Here it is far more than four that this president has failed to comply with and he’s ordered the executive branch as well not to cooperate with Congress. Those, together with a lot of other evidence, suggest obstruction of Congress.”
Republican Defense Sharpens
As the opening statement by Representative Doug Collins showcased, Republicans appear to have sharpened their defense of Trump since the Intelligence Committee’s last public hearing.
Representative Devin Nunes often led off Intelligence Committee hearings by mentioning conspiracy theories about interference in the 2016 election and accusing others of wrongdoing. By contrast, Collins built his defense on procedure and norms, arguing Democrats were rushing the impeachment process and have been plotting impeachment for years.
“It didn’t start with Mueller, it didn’t start with a phone call,” Collins said. “You know where this started? It started with tears in Brooklyn in November 2016 when an election was lost.”
Collins and other Republicans demanded Nadler allow the committee to question fact witnesses, including those called by Republicans. The Georgia Republican said it was a shame the Judiciary Committee, which has been the committee to marshal impeachments past, is taking evidence gathered in other committees to craft the articles of impeachment rather than doing work of its own.
Turley was the prime witness for Republicans during the day, as he calmly urged the House to tap the brakes on the impeachment and build out their case more.
“Impeachments have to be based on proof, not presumptions,” Turley said. “That’s the problem when you move toward impeachment on this abbreviated schedule.”
He tossed cold water on the insistence from the Democrat-invited witnesses that Trump’s actions qualify as bribery, saying the founders understood bribery to be narrow and more direct than what Democrats have accused Trump of doing.
Turley further said the case of obstruction against Trump is weak as currently constituted. He said Democrats should take the time to subpoena more witnesses and fight to enforce them in court, noting Nixon resigned shortly after the Supreme Court ruled against him and forced him to turn over evidence.
“You set an incredibly short period, demand a huge amount of information and, when the president goes to court, you then impeach him,” Turley said. “Now does that track with what you’ve heard about impeachment? Does that track with the rule of law that we’ve talked about?”
House Democrats have pulled back subpoenas from key witnesses in the impeachment inquiry, including former national security adviser John Bolton, in the hopes of avoiding protracted court fights.
While the other witnesses who testified at the hearing disagreed with Turley’s assessment of the case, their disputes were more reminiscent of those between opposing attorneys in a courtroom, rather than the scraps that characterized the Intelligence Committee’s impeachment hearings.