WASHINGTON — The House Judiciary Committee’s first impeachment hearing quickly burst into partisan infighting Wednesday as Democrats charged that President Donald Trump must be removed from office for enlisting foreign interference in U.S. elections and Republicans angrily retorted there were no grounds for such drastic action.
The panel responsible for drafting articles of impeachment convened as Trump’s team was fanning out across Capitol Hill. Vice President Mike Pence met behind closed doors with House Republicans, and Senate Republicans were to huddle with the White House counsel as GOP lawmakers stand with the president and Democrats charge headlong into what has become a one-party drive to impeach him.
Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-New York, gaveled open the hearing saying, “‘The facts before us are undisputed.”
Nadler said Trump’s phone call with Ukraine’s president last July wasn’t the first time Trump sought a foreign power to influence American elections, after Russian interference in 2016, and if left unchecked he could do again in next year’s campaign.
“We cannot wait for the election to address the present crisis,” Nadler said. “‘The president has shown us his pattern of conduct. If we do not act to hold him in check, now, President Trump will almost certainly try again to solicit interference in the election for his personal political gain.”
Republicans protested the proceedings as unfair to the president, the dredging up of unfounded allegations as part of an effort to undo the 2016 election and remove Trump from office.
“You just don’t like the guy,” said Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on the panel. He called the proceedings a “disgrace” and a “‘sham.”‘
Several Republicans immediately objected to the process, interjecting procedural questions, and they planned to spend much of the session interrupting, delaying and questioning the rules.
“This is not impeachment, this is a simple railroad job,” Collins said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Democrats “haven’t made a decision” yet on whether there will be a vote on impeachment. She was also meeting privately with the Democratic caucus. But a vote by Christmas appears increasingly likely with the release of a 300-page report by Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee that found “serious misconduct” by the president.
“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-California, told The Associated Press. “Americans need to understand that this president is putting his personal political interests above theirs. And that it’s endangering the country.”
The Judiciary Committee was hearing Wednesday from legal experts to determine whether Trump’s actions stemming from the July 25 phone call with Ukraine’s president rose to the constitutional level of “high crimes and misdemeanors” warranting impeachment. The report laid out evidence that the Democrats say show Trump’s efforts to seek foreign intervention in the U.S. election.
New telephone call records released with the report deepen Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani’s known involvement in what House investigators called the “scheme” to use the president’s office for personal political gain by enlisting a foreign power, Ukraine, to investigate Democrats including Joe Biden, and intervene in the American election process.
Trump told reporters in London, where he is attending a NATO meeting, he really doesn’t know why Giuliani was calling the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, which was withholding $400 million in military aid to the ally confronting an aggressive Russia at its border.
“‘You have to ask him,” Trump said. “Sounds like something that’s not so complicated. … No big deal.”
At the hearing, in an opening statement obtained by the AP, Republican witness Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University, said that the Democrats were bringing a “slipshod impeachment” case against the president based on secondhand information. Still, Turley didn’t excuse the president’s behavior.
“It is not wrong because President Trump is right,” according to Turley. He called 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 said.
The remaining three witnesses, all called by Democrats, argued for impeachment, according to statements obtained by the AP.
Michael Gerhardt of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill argued, “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 has called the impeachment effort by Democrats “unpatriotic” and said he wouldn’t be watching Wednesday’s hearing.
The Intelligence Committee’s Trump-Ukraine Impeachment Inquiry Report provides a detailed, stunning, account of a shadow diplomacy run by 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 Biden and his son. 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.
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.
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.
Possible grounds for impeachment are focused on whether Trump abused his office as he pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky 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.
Associated Press writers Zeke Miller, Andrew Taylor, Colleen Long, Eric Tucker and Jill Colvin contributed to this report.