WASHINGTON (CN) — Over the course of a marathon 8.5-hour congressional hearing, both parties largely stayed in friendly territory in questioning constitutional law professors making their cases for and against impeachment. One elected official set himself apart by interrogating the legal conclusions of a witness called by the opposing side.
A Democratic freshman from Colorado, wielding a juris doctor, Representative Joe Neguse crossed party lines in questioning the new favorite legal scholar of President Donald Trump’s loyalists: Professor Jonathan Turley.
“The questions that I posed to Professor Turley in particular, I thought were necessary to make sure that we cleared the record, so to speak,” Neguse told Courthouse News in a lengthy interview on Friday.
Turley, who teaches public interest law at George Washington University, conceded in his testimony two days earlier that President Trump’s call with his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky was “anything but ‘perfect,’” but he argued that his conduct was not grave enough for him to follow in the footsteps of Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton.
Sensing an opening, Neguse pounced in his questioning, pressing the witness on Nixon and Clinton’s relative compliance with congressional oversight.
“Am I right that President Nixon allowed senior White House officials, including the White House counsel, and the White House chief-of-staff, to testify in the impeachment inquiry?” Neguse asked.
“Yes,” the professor replied, simply.
“And you’re aware that President Trump has refused to allow his chief of staff or White House counsel to testify in this inquiry, correct?” the congressman pressed.
Hedging, Turley responded that this was true, but various officials who did testify continue to serve in government.
“But that does not include the White House counsel nor the White House chief of staff, correct?” Neguse needled.
“That’s correct,” Turley acknowledged.
Neguse drew similar concessions in questioning Turley about the relative compliance of former President Clinton, whom he noted provided written responses to more than 81 interrogatories from the House Judiciary Committee during that impeachment inquiry.
“I believe that’s right,” Turley responded to that history lesson, furrowing his brow in recalling the details.
It was also true, the professor agreed, that Trump has refused any requests for information in the impeachment inquiry.
In that tête-à-tête, Neguse found Turley’s confirmation in what he identified as a central point made by his fellow Democrats: “This president has engaged in a wholesale obstruction of Congress the likes of which we have not seen in the history of our republic.”
A few Republicans also crossed lines to question the Democrats’ witnesses, but for the most part, their efforts consisted of character attacks. Florida Representative Matt Gaetz tried to elicit testimony about the political donations of those three law professors and their party affiliations.
Asked by California Representative Tom McClintock whom she voted for president, Stanford Law Professor Pamela Karlan reminded her Republican inquisitor that the United States, like every advanced democracy, has a secret ballot.
Karlan came under fire by the White House and Republicans at one point for making a pun on the name of President Trump’s son Barron, a rhetorical device for which she apologized.
By focusing on the legal rather than personal arguments of the opposing side, Neguse exposed a gulf between the argument against impeachment made by House Republican leaders and Professor Turley, who accepted that the president’s conduct was wrong to a party that has made no such concession.
“From what I can tell, the House GOP has been all over the map,” Neguse said. “Some of the members, knowing that they cannot defend the uncontested facts before Congress, have decided to engage in these farcical arguments about process that they continue to lean on.”
He added, “There are other members that have tried to come up with rationalizations that are far exaggerated in terms of defending the president’s conduct, and then, there is a small minority—from what I can tell—that have taken the approach that Professor Turley took, which is to say, essentially state that while they don’t condone the conduct, it does not rise to the level of an impeachable offense.”
Finding this third way no more defensible, Neguse continued: “I just don’t think that that argument has any cogent legal basis when one reviews the constitutional history of impeachment and the way in which the impeachment power, which is a solemn one, has been applied in the past.”
The Colorado Democrat wound up his closing argument with a line from another pro-impeachment witness: University of North Carolina Law School professor Michael Gerhardt.
“If this conduct isn’t impeachable, nothing is,” Neguse said, quoting the professor.