WASHINGTON, DC—As the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee met Wednesday to open the next stage of the impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump, a feeling of inevitability had set into the process.
It seems all but inevitable that the Judiciary Committee will draw up articles of impeachment, possibly by the end of the week, and that the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives will vote to impeach the president.
Reading the 300-page Intelligence Committee report on the investigation’s findings, it is hard to see how they could do otherwise.
But at this point, it seems equally inevitable that in a trial, the Republican-controlled Senate will vote to acquit Trump of the charges, and he will remain in office. Reading the House Republicans’ own 125-page defence of the president after the investigation and listening to Republican lawmakers talk, it is hard to imagine them doing otherwise.
Partisan lines drawn, seemingly immovably.
Three out of four law professors who testified before the Judiciary Committee Wednesday agreed that the investigation has uncovered conduct they said clearly merited impeachment — arguing in response to questions that Trump’s conduct rises to the standard of abuse of power, and of bribery as understood by the U.S. founders when they wrote the constitution.
“If what we’re talking about is not impeachable, then nothing is impeachable,” Michael Gerhardt, a professor of constitutional law at the University of North Carolina School of Law.
The fourth professor, Johnathan Turley of George Washington University, who was invited by the Republicans, was the only witness to say he didn’t think the evidence met the threshold of impeachment. He said that while he agreed parts of Trump’s phone call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy were “highly inappropriate” and that a clear quid pro quo like the one the president is accused of would be impeachable, he didn’t think the case was proved. He suggested congress should make a greater effort to compel the testimony of central witnesses that the White House has blocked from testifying, such as Trump’s Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani.
Even this breakdown of testimony Wednesday — the three witnesses invited by Democrats clearly in favour of impeachment, the one invited by Republicans opposed — followed the party-line interpretation of events.
But it was even more evident in the writings of the congressional members of the House Intelligence Committee. The duelling reports from the two groups of politicians released before Wednesday’s hearing seem to be written about two entirely different sets of circumstances.
The committee report compellingly sums up the evidence against the president. “The impeachment inquiry has found that President Trump, personally and acting through agents within and outside of the U.S. government, solicited the interference of a foreign government, Ukraine, to benefit his reelection,” it reads.
“In furtherance of this scheme, President Trump conditioned official acts on a public announcement by the new Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, of politically-motivated investigations, including one into President Trump’s domestic political opponent. In pressuring President Zelenskiy to carry out his demand, President Trump withheld a White House meeting desperately sought by the Ukrainian president, and critical U.S. military assistance to fight Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine.”
It goes on to say that: Acting on the president’s behalf, Giuliani participated in a public smear campaign against the then-Ukrainian ambassador, culminating in her firing; she was replaced by a team who were tasked with working alongside Giuliani to get investigations announced that would help Trump politically; Trump himself asked specifically for these investigations in a phone call with President Zelenskiy, and specifically in response to his talking about military aid; Trump’s representatives on the file were convinced that a meeting in the White House was conditioned on the investigations; key Trump negotiator Gordon Sondland said he was convinced as clearly as “two plus two equals four” that military aid being held up by the president was also dependent on the investigations, and he told the Ukrainians as much; President Trump’s chief of staff seemed to straightforwardly confirm this in a press conference, and, before walking it back, told reporters that politics is always part of foreign policy, and they should, “Get over it.”
The separate report by the Republican members doesn’t so much contradict that evidence as deny it or ignore it. It does not take the approach Turley did in his testimony by saying the president may have made mistakes but they fail to rise to the standard of impeachment. Instead they say he did nothing wrong.
“The evidence does not support the accusation that President Trump pressured President Zelenskiy to initiate investigations for the purpose of benefiting the president in the 2020 election,” it says, though we have the words of the president himself on the phone call reconstruction released by the White House requesting those investigations. “The evidence does not support the accusation that President Trump obstructed the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry,” they write, though his orders to employees not to testify or co-operate, his refusal to answer subpoenas for documents, his tweets hurling insults and abuse at those who did testify are all a matter of public record. They say there was “no quid pro quo,” though Sondland testified, in exactly those words, that there was.
The Republican defence asks Americans to consider that Trump sincerely believed Ukraine was out to get him because some Ukrainian officials had made statements opposing his stated policies when he was running for president, and that this personal suspicion justifies leveraging foreign policy against them. They tell Americans that investigating Joe and Hunter Biden and thoroughly discredited allegations of Ukraine interference in the 2016 election are legitimate anti-corruption goals innocently pursued by Trump, but do not explain why Trump and those working for him seemed interested exclusively in these two particular investigations that would benefit him politically, and not any of the other broad anti-corruption efforts Zelenskiy was elected to enact.
In a press conference introducing his report Tuesday, Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, who led the investigation, cited Mulvaney’s “get over it ” comments, and said the choice before the legislators tasked by the constitution to act as a check on the president, and by extension for the American people, was to either take Mulvaney’s advice or to take action against him
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“I, for one, don’t think we should get over this. I don’t think we should get used to it,” Schiff said.
Gerhardt, in the opening statement to his testimony, outlined what he thought Americans were being asked to get over: “If congress fails to impeach here, then the impeachment process has lost all meaning, and, along with that, our constitution’s carefully crafted safeguard against the establishment of a king on American soil.”