Some of President Donald Trump’s fiercest critics and defenders on Capitol Hill return to the spotlight Wednesday as the House Judiciary Committee holds its first hearing in the Ukraine impeachment inquiry.
On Wednesday morning, the panel will hear testimony from constitutional scholars just hours after the House Intelligence Committee released its report Tuesday evening into whether Trump improperly ordered military aid to Ukraine withheld to pressure the country to launch investigations against a potential 2020 political rival.
Led by Democrat Jerry Nadler of New York, the committee is also responsible for drafting and approving any articles of impeachment against Trump, which some Democrats have suggested could include charges focused on bribery, obstruction of justice and obstruction of Congress.
The House Judiciary Committee is much more contentious
Unlike the House Intelligence Committee, a historically buttoned-up panel that has traditionally conducted its oversight of the intelligence community quietly and in a bipartisan fashion, the 41-member Judiciary Committee is one of the oldest and largest in the House, and tends to attract sharp-elbowed lawyers, former prosecutors and passionate advocates because of its sprawling jurisdiction over the justice system, immigration, federal and criminal law.
A mix of party leaders, junior lawmakers, and partisans from both sides of the aisle, the Judiciary Committee also includes some of the most prominent defenders and critics of the president on Capitol Hill.
Members to watch
Trump confidants such as Republican Reps. Matt Gaetz of Florida, who led a Republican protest in the closed-door SCIF (Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility) and disrupted the Intelligence Committee’s work in October, and Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas, who has accused Democrats of waging a “coup” against the president, are both members of the committee, and will take part in questioning of any witnesses moving forward.
For the majority, Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., a constitutional law professor-turned-Trump critic who has helped craft the party’s messaging on impeachment, and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., the chair of the Democratic caucus and potential successor to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, are among the Democrats to watch.
The Judiciary Committee also includes veterans of past impeachment efforts, including GOP Reps. Steve Chabot of Ohio and Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, who were House mangers in the Senate trial in President Bill Clinton’s impeachment, and Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., who was a committee staffer during Watergate.
Four members of the committee will be familiar faces to viewers of the Intelligence Committee’s hearings: Democratic Reps. Eric Swalwell of California and Val Demmings of Florida, along with Republican Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio and John Ratcliffe of Texas who serve on both panels.
Democrats plan keep the hearing focused on the details of the Ukraine impeachment investigation, and whether they meet the constitutional threshold of bribery, high crimes and misdemeanors.
Nadler under pressure to keep hearing under control
After Schiff led two weeks of tightly-controlled hearings, many hope Nadler will be able to keep the hearing on track, and prevent the session from resembling the combative hearing with Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s former campaign manager, earlier this year, before the Ukraine matter exploded into public view.
Republicans, for their part, have accused Democrats of running an investigation that has denied Trump due process and the ability to question fact witnesses to events at the center of the impeachment inquiry. Using parliamentary inquiries and points of order, they could seek to fluster Democrats and air their concerns about the proceedings.
The White House has rejected Democrats’ offer to participate in Wednesday’s hearing, but has not ruled out taking part in subsequent hearings.
“We're back, by the way, in rerun season here in the Judiciary Committee. We've already had constitutional scholars in the committee talking about from the Mueller report and others,” Rep. Doug Collins, R-Georgia, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said on “Fox News Sunday” this past weekend, referring to the committee’s earlier hearings on the investigation by former special counsel Robert Mueller.
“This is a complete American waste of time,” Collins said, foreshadowing the kind of attacks he and other republicans can be expected to stage when the hearing gets underway.
Schiff, meanwhile, says his committee will not let up.
“Even while Judiciary does its work, we will continue investigating.” he said on MSNBC Monday night.
He did not tip his hand on the timing of any impeachment vote, but said Democrats believe the matter has some “urgency.”
“This is a threat to the integrity of the upcoming election, and we don’t feel that it should wait.”
He also said he believes the evidence of obstruction of Congress is “overwhelming.”
What are the witnesses expected to say?
The Judiciary Committee will hear from three constitutional experts called by Democrats and one by Republicans.
The GOP’s witness, George Washington University Law School professor Jonathan Turley, recently wrote in The Hill:
“House Democrats have done a masterful job of holding hearings with testimony from distinguished diplomatic and national security witnesses on the alleged quid pro quo that President Trump sought from Ukraine. The problem is that the record is incomplete and conflicted on critical points. The question is whether Democrats want a real or a recreational impeachment. A real impeachment case can be made, but to make it, they will have to reschedule, reframe, and repeat their House investigation. As compelling and upsetting as much of the testimony has been, the record still lacks direct evidence of a quid pro quo on American military aid to Ukraine," Turley wrote.
Testifying for the Democrats, Noah Feldman, a professor at Harvard Law School, recently wrote in The New York Times: “To be sure, Donald Trump had already created a crisis in the presidency by abusing the power of his office to pressure foreign governments to investigate his political rival Joe Biden. But that act on its own didn’t count as a constitutional crisis, because the Constitution prescribes an answer to presidential abuse of office: impeachment.
“Now that President Trump has announced — via a letter signed by Pat Cipollone, the White House counsel — that he will not cooperate in any way with the impeachment inquiry begun in the House of Representatives, we no longer have just a crisis of the presidency. We also have a breakdown in the fundamental structure of government under the Constitution. That counts as a constitutional crisis,” Feldman said,
Another Democratic witness, Michael Gerhardt a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law, wrote in The Atlantic:
“If you add up the nonsense that the president’s defenders have proliferated and his protestation that the Constitution allows him to do whatever he wants, their proposed result is disturbing: an executive who can shut down an impeachment inquiry and protect from disclosure anything done by anyone in the executive branch, and who is immune to criminal investigation and allowed to defy subpoenas.
“This is not the president our Constitution established. He would be a king, in spite of the fact that the Founders’ generation rebelled against one. They set out to create a presidency that was accountable to Congress if the occupant abused power and breached the public’s trust. Donald Trump’s efforts to delegitimize the impeachment inquiry destroy their vision,” Gerhardt wrote.
The third Democratic witness is Pamela Khan, a professor at Stanford Law School.