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Wide partisan gulf on display at impeachment hearing

First day of testimony offers little hope of mutual agreement on facts uncovered by House Democrats

House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., speaks with ranking member Doug Collins, R-Ga., during the House Judiciary Committee hearing on the impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump on Dec. 4. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., speaks with ranking member Doug Collins, R-Ga., during the House Judiciary Committee hearing on the impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump on Dec. 4. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

Democrats and Republicans might have been in the same hearing room Wednesday, but the first day of testimony in this phase of the impeachment process of President Donald Trump underscored just how little the parties are engaging with each other.

And the daylong House Judiciary Committee hearing dedicated to exploring the Constitution’s impeachment standard of “high crimes and misdemeanors” offered little hope of some mutual agreement on the facts that House Democrats uncovered, how to interpret them or the entire impeachment process.

[Impeachment hearing more about Judiciary panel than witnesses]

Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., opened the hearing with a statement that “the facts before us are undisputed” when it came to Trump’s dealings with Ukraine. He said that in a few days the committee will hear from the committees that uncovered those facts that were part of “a concerted effort by the president, and by his men, to solicit a personal advantage in the next election.”

Not surprisingly, Republicans didn’t agree. “The only thing that is disputed more than the facts in this case is the statement that the facts are undisputed. They are absolutely disputed,” said Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas.

And during hours of testimony from four constitutional law experts, three invited by Democrats and one by Republicans, the lawmakers or their committee counsel almost exclusively directed questions only to their side’s witness.

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In early questioning from Democratic committee counsel, the three Democrat-called witnesses agreed that Trump abused his power and committed an impeachable offense. The counsel did not ask Republican-called witness Jonathan Turley of George Washington University what he thought on that question.

When Republicans got their first chance to ask questions, they gave Turley great space to explain why he thought the impeachment case against Trump was too thin, too narrow and too fast. The Democrat-called witnesses got asked no questions.

The result was a hearing in which Democrats generally made statements about why Trump committed an impeachable offense with the help of answers from their witnesses, while Republicans made statements defending Trump with the help of answers from Turley.

Democratic committee members, when asked before or during the hearing, struggled to describe a strategy for using the hearing to convince Republicans or their constituents that the facts showed Trump had committed impeachable offenses.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., the highest-ranking Democratic leader on the committee, answered that there is “no hope” as it relates to the majority of House Republicans. “I guess we can always remain somewhat optimistic that they will see the facts as they have been presented by witnesses from the Trump administration, but to date we’ve seen no evidence of a turnaround,” Jeffries said.

Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., a constitutional law professor and committee member, said many Republicans think about fending off primary challengers rather than the whole country or the Constitution, “and that’s just sad.”

“So, at this point, we just have to try to encourage everybody to go back and read the Constitution, read the Federalist Papers, and take the responsibility seriously,” Raskin said.

And Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., also a committee member, said Republicans and voters will understand that the president and lawmakers should commit to putting the interests of the United States above personal or political interests, “and I think as we go forward [that] will become more and more clear.”

But that was not clear in the hearing room, where Republicans showed no signs of moving off an aggressive defense of Trump and criticism of House Democrats’ impeachment process.

Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, did not ask a question during his five-minute opportunity.

“It’s pretty clear to me that no matter what questions we ask these four witnesses here today, and no matter what their answers are, that most if not all of the Democrats on this committee are going to vote to impeach President Trump,” Chabot said.

Ahead of the hearing, conservative lawyer Jonathan Adler said that instead of calling three liberal law professors, Democrats could have called a conservative lawyer who would have shown “support for their impeachment standard across the ideological spectrum.” He named five such lawyers.

“It’s as if they want this to be partisan affair,” Adler tweeted of Democrats on Tuesday.

During the hearing, that did not go unnoticed. Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., tweeted: “Democrats are holding a national T.V. hearing to ask three liberal law professors why President Trump should be impeached. Really something.”

And Josh Holmes, former chief of staff for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, asked what “Democrats think they are accomplishing by soliciting three left-wing professors to conclude Trump should be impeached?”

When lawmakers did ask questions of the opposing party’s witness, they were aimed at the witness’ credibility, not the substance of their constitutional analysis.

In exchanges that grew heated, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., asked the Democratic witnesses about their campaign donations, including to Elizabeth Warren, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. He charged through his questions to fit them into his five minutes, and the witnesses clamored to clarify their statements while Gaetz moved on to his next inquiry.

And Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., brought up Turley’s role in defending a federal judge in 2010 against impeachment. That judge, Thomas Porteous, was ultimately impeached and convicted in the Senate.

“As a former prosecutor, I recognize a defense attorney trying to represent their client, especially one who has very little to work with in the way of facts,” Swalwell said of Turley. “Today you’re representing the Republicans in their defense of the president.”

“That’s not my intention, sir,” Turley responded.

Late in the day, Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colo., engaged with Turley and got a concession that President Richard Nixon had cooperated more with a House impeachment inquiry than Trump has.

Neguse pointed out that Nixon allowed his chief of staff and chief counsel to testify and Trump has not, and that Nixon responded to questions from an impeachment probe and Trump has not.

“I agree with that,” Turley said.

Katherine Tully-McManus and Patrick Kelley contributed to this report.

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