Two Coloradans sitting on opposite sides of a wide partisan divide questioned legal scholars Wednesday as the House Judiciary Committee conducted its first day of hearings to determine whether to impeach President Donald Trump.
U.S. Reps. Ken Buck and Joe Neguse each held the microphone for five minutes during tense, day-long testimony that featured four experts discussing what the framers of the Constitution meant when they set "high crimes and misdemeanors" as grounds for impeachment.
Buck, a Windsor Republican who doubles as the chairman of the Colorado Republican Party, asked whether nearly every president could have been impeached under the “amorphous standard” articulated by the scholars called to testify by the Democrats.
Neguse, a Democrat from Lafayette, asked whether Trump had "harassed and intimidated" witnesses in numerous investigations and got a scholar called by the Republicans to acknowledge that previous presidents cooperated more fully with impeachment inquiries than Trump has.
Both hewed to arguments made by their fellow committee members — Democrats charging Trump with abusing his power by pressuring Ukraine to investigate political rivals, with Trump and Republicans countering that the entire enterprise amounts to a partisan "witch hunt."
The 41-member committee will decide whether to draw up articles of impeachment following a two-month investigation by the House Intelligence Committee that concluded Trump tried to get his Ukrainian counterpart to take steps Trump believed would help him win re-election.
“They’ve said if a president abuses his power for political gain, it’s impeachable conduct,” said Buck, a former Weld County prosecutor, before asking GOP witness Jonathan Turley of George Washington University whether a slew of presidential misdeeds might qualify.
Among Buck's examples: Lyndon B. Johnson allegedly told the CIA to put a spy inside challenger Barry Goldwater's campaign and wiretapped the Republican's plane, Franklin D. Roosevelt supposedly ordered the IRS to audit political opponents, and Abraham Lincoln had Maryland legislators arrested so they couldn't convene in order to secede from the Union.
"Can you name a single president in the history of the United States — save President (William Henry) Harrison, who died 32 days after his inauguration — that would not have met the standard of impeachment for our friends here?" Buck asked.
Turley responded: "I can't exclude many of these acts."
The Democrats, Buck stated, have "decided that the bar is so low" that the country could face endless impeachment rigamaroles every time the White House and Congress are controlled by different parties.
"Now, isn’t the difference, Professor Turley, that some people live in an ivory tower, and some people live in a swamp," Buck concluded. "And those of us in the swamp are doing our very best for the American people, but it’ s not pretty."
Turley quipped that he lives “in an ivory tower in a swamp” — his university is in Washington, D.C. — “and it’s not so bad.”
Hours later, Neguse pressed Turley over contrasts between Trump and Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton when they faced impeachment inquiries.
The Democrat said that Nixon allowed his chief of staff and chief legal counsel to testify in a congressional inquiry but Trump has not, and Clinton provided written responses to more than 80 questions submitted by a Republican-led inquiry, while Trump has refused to comply with any request for information from Democrats.
Neguse continued, pointing to a letter issued by Trump's legal counsel at the outset of the investigation: "Am I correct that no president in the history of the Republic, before President Trump, has ever issued a general order instructing executive branch officials not to testify in an impeachment inquiry?"
Neguse also suggested that Trump had "tried to interfere in both the Ukraine investigation and Special Counsel (Robert) Mueller's investigation, in order to try to cover up his own misconduct."
In both cases, Neguse charged, the president "actively discouraged witnesses from cooperating, intimidated witnesses who came forward and praised those who refused to cooperate."
He cited Trump's statements calling the whistleblower who instigated the inquiry "a disgrace to our country" and a presidential tweet that said witnesses should be dealt with "in the way we used to do" with spies and traitors, implying they should be executed. Neguse then quoted Trump's attacks on a diplomat the president called a "never-Trumper" on the same day Trump labeled never-Trumpers "scum."
"Is the president's interference in these investigations also the kind of conduct that the framers were worried about?" Neguse asked University of North Carolina law professor Michael Gerhardt, one of the Democrats' witnesses.
Gerhardt responded that the framers of the Constitution expected a president to be held accountable for that kind of activity, "and not just at elections."