Takeaways from the House Judiciary Committee's first impeachment hearing

The impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump is moving into its next phase as the House Judiciary Committee holds its first hearings. Chris Cillizza answers all your impeachment questions here to help you navigate the unfolding events.

Posted: Dec 4, 2019 4:10 PM
Updated: Dec 4, 2019 4:10 PM

On Wednesday morning, the House Judiciary Committee convened its first hearing in the impeachment investigation into President Donald Trump -- bringing in four constitutional lawyers to debate what, exactly, constitutes "high crimes and misdemeanors" and whether the President had committed any of those acts.

I am watching the hearings and identifying key moments and takeaways in real time. They're below.

This is going to be looooong day

It became clear within the first five minutes of the hearing that Republicans were committed to trying to gum up the works using a variety of parliamentary stall tactics. Within the first 90 minutes of the hearing, Republicans forced roll call votes of the 41 members on the committee three times -- once to try to force Rep. Adam Schiff, a California Democrat, to testify, once to postpone the hearings and a third time to force the so-called "whistleblower" to testify. While all those motions were voted down -- as will all such future motions offered by Republicans on Wednesday -- they had the desired slow-down effect nonetheless.

These stall tactics by Republicans are a marked changed from the public impeachment hearings in the House Intelligence Committee, where there were very few similar attempts to disrupt the proceedings by the minority party. That change speaks to the cultural difference between the two committees. The Intelligence Committee is a small committee (20-ish members) with, typically, more workhorses than showhorses. The Judiciary Committee is almost twice as large in terms of members and packed with showhorses on both sides of the aisle seeking to score points for the cameras.

All of which means that Wednesday's hearing is going to be a circus. And a slow one at that.

Jerry Nadler explains why impeachment needs to be considered now

In his opening statement, Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, a New York Democrat, sought to address the biggest question Democrats face when it comes to the ongoing impeachment process: Why now? Especially when Trump will be up for reelection in less than a year?

"We are all aware that the next election is looming -- but we cannot wait for the election to address the present crisis," Nadler said. "The integrity of that election is the very thing at stake. 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 benefit."

In short: We can't wait because there is every reason to believe that Trump will do what he did with Ukraine again and again before the 2020 election. And such behavior would set a hugely dangerous precedent for how future presidents -- Democrat or Republican -- can and should act.

Nadler's argument won't change the minds of his Republican colleagues in Congress. But they're not the intended audience. Voters around the country are.

Republicans ignore facts, focus on the 'why' behind impeachment push

Georgia Rep. Doug Collins, the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, used his opening statement not to dispute the basic facts surrounding the July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky but rather to trace the origins of calls for the President to be impeached.

"This is not an impeachment," Collins said. "This is just a simple railroad job, and today's (hearing) is a waste of time. It didn't start with (Robert) Mueller, it didn't start with a phone call. It started with tears in Brooklyn in November 2016." Which means, in the case you somehow missed it, a reference to Hillary Clinton losing the 2016 presidential election.

The goal here is simple: Make this hearing -- and the broader impeachment investigation -- focused on Democrats' hatred of Trump, not about what Trump did (or didn't do).

One witness smacked down Doug Collins -- bigly

In Collins' opening statement, he repeatedly took a dismissive tone toward the quartet of law professors sitting before him. "We got law professors here," he joked at the end of his opening statement. "What a start of a party." One of the four -- Stanford Law professor Pam Karlan -- took considerable umbrage at Collins' dismissals.

"Everything I know about our Constitution and its values and my review of the evidentiary record -- and here Mr. Collins, I would like to say to you, sir, that I read transcripts of every one of the witnesses who appeared in the live hearing because I would not speak about these things without reviewing the facts, so I'm insulted by the suggestion that as a law professor I don't care about those facts," Karlan scolded the Georgia Republican.

Collins looked as though he wanted to say something, but didn't interrupt Karlan.

Jonathan Turley has been a very good witness for Republicans

Turley, a law professor at George Washington University, is the lone GOP witness among the four professors. What has made him effective in the hearing, however, is his calm and reasoned appeals to rise above the current partisanship of the moment. Turley made clear in his opening statement that he didn't vote for Trump, and he didn't believe that Trump's call with Zelensky was "perfect," as Trump has said. He also admitted to being frustrated at the current situation in Washington.

Those admissions made his insistence stronger that there wasn't enough evidence yet to impeach Trump and that the whole process would be better if everyone slowed down, took a deep breath and thought of the ramifications of their actions.

So far, then, Turley has been everything (and more) Republicans had hoped he would be.

What a day for history nerds!

Do you love obscure references to American history and our founding fathers? Boy, have we got the hearing for you!

In the morning session alone, we got MULTIPLE references to William Davie, the 18th Century governor of North Carolina. We got a reference to Viscount John Mordaunt, who was impeached by the British House of Commons in 1666 but quickly pardoned by King Charles II. At one point, one of the witnesses -- Harvard Law professor Noah Feldman -- postulated that the committee needed to consider what they would say about their rulings if they met James Madison or Alexander Hamilton in the afterlife. So that's what law professors' fan fiction looks like!

Here's the quote of the hearing for Democrats

While Karlan was the shining star of the day for Democrats, it was University of North Carolina Law School professor Michael Gerhardt who offered up what I believe will be the most regularly quoted line of the day.

"If what we're talking about isn't impeachable, then nothing is impeachable," said Gerhardt, referencing what he believed to be the clear impeachable conduct of bribery and obstruction detailed in the report released Tuesday by Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee.

Nadler's own words come back to haunt him

Nadler was a prominent defender of Bill Clinton during the late 1990s when House Republicans impeached the former President for lying under oath about his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. At the time, Nadler argued that impeachment should never be pursued if only one party favored it because it would deeply divide the nation.

Ohio Republican Rep. Steve Chabot, in one of the best moments for the GOP in the hearing, reminded Nadler of how much a difference a few decades make. Chabot read a series of Nadler quotes from the late 1990s, noting that he agreed with that version of Nadler and wondering what -- other than the President's party -- had changed.

Nadler chose not to respond.

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