Three legal experts told U.S. lawmakers on Wednesday that President Donald Trump's efforts to pressure Ukraine to investigate a political rival amounted to impeachable offenses, in a hearing that laid the groundwork for formal charges to be filed against the president.
A law professor selected by Trump's fellow Republicans disagreed, saying the Democratic-led impeachment inquiry was "slipshod" and "rushed" and lacked testimony from people with direct knowledge of the relevant events, adding that current evidence does not show Trump committed "a clear criminal act."
Democrats leading the effort said they may look beyond his relations with Ukraine as they draw up articles of impeachment, to include his earlier efforts to impede former Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of his campaign's relations with Russia.
"It does not matter that President Trump felt that these investigations were unfair to him. It matters that he used his office, not merely to defend himself, but to obstruct investigators at every turn," Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler said.
The impeachment inquiry, launched in September, focuses on Trump's request that Ukraine conduct investigations that could harm political rival Joe Biden, a leading contender for the Democratic 2020 presidential nomination.
The hearing on Wednesday was the committee's first to examine whether Trump's actions qualify as "high crimes and misdemeanors" punishable by impeachment under the U.S. Constitution.
Three law professors chosen by the Democrats made clear during the lengthy session that they believed Trump's actions constituted impeachable offenses.
"If what we're talking about is not impeachable, then nothing is impeachable," said University of North Carolina law professor Michael Gerhardt.
But George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley, who was invited by the Republicans, said the inquiry was moving too quickly and lacked testimony from people with direct knowledge of the relevant events. He said he did not see clear evidence of illegal conduct.
"There's so much more rage than reason," said Turley, who added that he did not vote for Trump. "At some point as a people we have to have a serious discussion about the grounds to remove a duly elected president.
Trump has denied wrongdoing.
In London for a NATO meeting, he called a report by House Democrats released on Tuesday that laid out possible grounds for impeachment a "joke" and appeared to question the patriotism of the Democrats, asking: "Do they in fact love our country?"
Democrats who control the House of Representatives may vote by the end of the year on impeachment charges that could include abuse of power, bribery, obstruction of Congress and obstruction of justice. Lawmakers say no decision on which articles to pursue has been made at this point.
The Republican-controlled Senate would have to vote to remove Trump from power. Republicans in both chambers have stuck with the president, blasting the impeachment effort as an attempt to undo his surprise victory in the 2016 election.
"This is a partisan impeachment and it is tearing the country apart," Republican Representative Debbie Lesko said.
The inquiry's focus is a July 25 telephone call in which Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to open an investigation into Biden and his son Hunter Biden and into a discredited theory promoted by Trump's allies that Ukraine, not Russia, meddled in the 2016 U.S. election.
Hunter Biden had joined the board of Ukrainian energy company Burisma while his father was U.S. vice president. Trump has accused the Bidens of corruption without offering evidence. They have denied wrongdoing.
Democrats have accused Trump of abusing his power by withholding $391 million in security aid to Ukraine - a U.S. ally facing Russian aggression - to pressure Zelenskiy to announce that he was investigating Biden and the 2016 election.
The money, approved by Congress, was provided to Ukraine in September only after the controversy had spilled into public view.
Trump has instructed current and former members of his administration not to testify or produce documents, leading senior officials like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to defy House subpoenas.
Republicans focused their questions on Turley, who largely backed up their view that Democrats had not made the case for impeachment - although he did say that leveraging U.S. military aid to investigate a political opponent "if proven, can be an impeachable offense."
Democrats sought to buttress their case by focusing their questions on the other three experts - Gerhardt, Harvard University law professor Noah Feldman and Stanford University law professor Pam Karlan - who said impeachment was justified.
Karlan drew a sharp response from Republicans for a remark about how Trump did not enjoy the unlimited power of a king.
"While the president can name his son Barron, he can't make him a baron," she said.
White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham on Twitter called Karlan "classless," and first lady Melania Trump said Karlan should be "ashamed of your very angry and obviously biased public pandering" for mentioning her 13-year-old son.
Republican Tom McClintock asked the legal witnesses if they voted for Trump. They declined to answer.
No president has ever been removed from office through impeachment, although Republican Richard Nixon resigned in 1974 after the House began the impeachment process in the Watergate corruption scandal. Two other presidents - Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton - were impeached by the House but acquitted by the Senate.
The committee could soon recommend articles of impeachment against Trump, setting up a possible vote by the full House before Christmas, followed by a Senate trial in January.
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