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Trump's conduct meets definition of 'high crimes and misdemeanours': legal experts

Four law school professors gave lessons on U.S. history and presidential politics before the House judiciary committee hearing on Wednesday, with all but one arguing that President Donald Trump's conduct meets the definition of "high crimes and misdemeanours" required for impeachable offences.

3 witnesses called by Democrats say there is a case to be made for impeachment

Michael Gerhardt, professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law, testifies as he sits among fellow witnesses Noah Feldman, left, professor at Harvard University Law School, Pamela Karlan, co-director of the Supreme Court Litigation Clinic at Stanford University Law School, and Jonathan Turley, right, professor George Washington University Law School, during the first House judiciary committee hearing on the impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Donald Trump in Washington Wednesday. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

Four law school professors gave lessons on American history and presidential politics before the House judiciary committee Wednesday, with all but one arguing that President Donald Trump's conduct with Ukraine meets the definition of "high crimes and misdemeanours" required in the U.S. Constitution for impeachable offences.

The judiciary committee heard from legal experts to determine whether Trump's actions involving Ukraine, including a July 25 phone call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, meet the tests for impeachment and possible removal from office.

A 300-page report compiled by Democrats on the House intelligence committee laid out evidence of Trump's efforts to seek foreign intervention in the U.S. election.

The session Wednesday with legal scholars was delving into possible impeachable offences, but the panel, led by chairman Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat from New York, quickly revealed the sharply partisan divisions on the committee.

"President Trump welcomed foreign interference in the 2016 election," said Nadler in his opening statement.

"He demanded it for the 2020 election. In both cases, he got caught. And in both cases, he did everything in his power to prevent the American people from learning the truth about his conduct."

"If we do not act to hold him in check, now, President Trump will almost certainly try again to solicit interference in the [upcoming] election for his personal political gain," he added.

WATCH: Prof. Noah Feldman explains how Trump is obstructing the hearings

Constitutional law professor Noah Feldman says U.S. President Donald Trump attempted to put himself above the law, making it an impeachable offence. 1:31

Republican witness Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University, said the Democrats are bringing a "slipshod impeachment" case against the president based on second-hand information. Still, Turley didn't excuse the president's behaviour.

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."

Turley said that moving ahead with impeachment would set a "dangerous precedent" for curtailing the actions of future presidents.

The remaining three witnesses, all called by Democrats, said there was a case to be made for impeachment.

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."

If Congress fails to impeach here, then the impeachment process has lost all meaning.- Michael Gerhardt, witness

Harvard University law professor Noah Feldman said "the president's conduct described by the testimony embodies the [constitution's] framers' concern that a sitting president would corruptly abuse the powers of office to distort the outcome of a presidential election in his favour,"

Pamela Karlan, of Stanford University law school, said Trump abused his power by demanding foreign involvement in a U.S. election.

"What has happened in the case today is something I do not think we have ever seen before: a president who has doubled down on violating his oath to faithfully execute the laws and to protect and defend the constitution," said Karlan.

Article II, Section IV of the U.S. Constitution stipulates that the president and other officers of government "shall be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanours." 

White House declined to take part

Democrats leading the effort said they may look beyond Trump's relations with Ukraine as they draw up articles of impeachment in the coming days, to include his earlier efforts to impede former special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of his campaign's relations with Russia.

A judiciary committee vote is expected next week. The full House could vote by Christmas. Then the matter would move to the Republican-controlled Senate for a trial in 2020.

"If you want to know what's really driving this — it's called the clock and the calendar," said ranking Republican committee member Doug Collins, in an opening statement dismissive of the hearing.

U.S. House judiciary committee chair Jerry Nadler gives his introductory remarks at Wednesday's hearing. (Saul Loeb/Reuters)

The White House, which declined an invitation to participate in Wednesday's session, has stymied efforts by Democrats in various House committees to question administration officials or obtain documents. Some have appeared after being issued subpoenas, while others have defied the subpoenas, including Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani.

"In this situation, the full-scale obstruction of those subpoenas I think torpedoes separation of powers, and therefore your only recourse is to in a sense protect your institutional prerogatives, and that would include impeachment," argued Gerhardt.

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, as has been alleged Trump did. At the time, Trump was withholding $400 million US in military aid, jeopardizing key support as Ukraine faces an aggressive Russia at its border.

The report did not render a judgment on whether Trump's actions stemming from a July 25 phone call with Zelensky rose to the constitutional level of "high crimes and misdemeanours" warranting impeachment. That is for the full House to decide. But its findings involving Trump's efforts to seek foreign intervention in the American election process provide the basis for a House vote on impeachment and a Senate trial carrying the penalty of removal from office.

Republicans defended the president in a 123-page rebuttal claiming Trump never intended to pressure Ukraine when he asked for a "favour" — investigations of Joe Biden, whose son served on a Ukraine energy board, and a probe of a discredited theory involving the cyberintrusions of the Democratic National Committee. They say the military aid the White House was withholding was not being used as leverage and that the aid was ultimately released.

The Democrats have countered that the aid was only released when it was apparent that Congress would investigate.

Most of the legal scholars said that it didn't matter that the aid was eventually disbursed.

"Soliciting itself is the impeachable offence," said Karlan.

Trump comments 'struck a kind of horror'

Feldman agreed, drawing an analogy to President Richard Nixon not being successful in his coverup of the Watergate break-in. Nixon nonetheless had committed an impeachable offence, he said.

When reminded that Trump claimed at a July event two days before the Zelenksy call that Article 2 of the constitution gave him "the right to do whatever I want as president," Feldman said those comments "struck a kind of horror in me."

Even Turley agreed the president's view was misguided.

But, Turley argued, Trump has every right to go to outside courts to rule on whether the subpoenas are valid.

Turley also said he didn't believe the evidence against Trump is strong enough to meet the threshold of an impeachable offence. He says the president's conduct doesn't rise to any reasonable interpretation of crimes such as bribery, and especially not obstruction.

WATCH: Prof. Jonathan Turley explains why he doesn't think the evidence is strong enough to impeach 

Testifying at the impeachment hearing, Prof. Jonathan Turley said the case against U.S. President Donald Trump lacks clear and convincing evidence. 2:04

Based on two months of investigation sparked by a government whistleblower's complaint, the intelligence committee report relies heavily on testimony from current and former U.S. officials who defied White House orders not to appear.

The inquiry found Trump "solicited the interference of a foreign government, Ukraine, to benefit his re-election," House intelligence chair Adam 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.

Along with revelations from earlier testimony, the report included previously unreleased cellphone records raising fresh questions about Giuliani's interactions with the White House's Office of Management and Budget as well as the top Republican on the intelligence panel, Devin Nunes of California. Nunes declined to comment. 

Trump, who has called the impeachment inquiry "unpatriotic," said Wednesday in London at the NATO summit that he didn't know why Giuliani was speaking with the OMB.

Trump encouraged reporters to ask Giuliani about the calls, but claimed they are "no big deal."

With files from CBC News and Reuters

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