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Stage set for House impeachment; Senate poised to acquit president

Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON — House Democrats, having trotted out three academic experts on Wednesday to support the impeachment of President Trump, and House Republicans, having brought out one expert against it, now move on to consider actual articles that the House Judiciary Committee is expected to approve before Christmas or sooner.

Thereafter, the president’s fate will be passed on to the Senate, where the Republican majority has more than enough votes to reject impeachment, which would require 67 votes for conviction.

So the Democrats face an uphill climb to build a case persuasive enough to break the hold Trump has built on what is now effectively a Trump GOP. Still, impeachment is on a fast track to a Senate vote, which would probably take place early next year.

The Democrats are obliged in the coming weeks to make the most of the testimony of their experts on the impeachment process and history, in what was essentially a classroom exercise not likely to change the minds of Trump loyalists.

The lead pro-impeachment witness, Harvard Law School professor Noah Feldman, argued that Trump asking a “favor” of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelinskiy to call for an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden in return for $391 million in military aid was a classic case for removing an American president.

“Ultimately, the reason the Constitution provided for impeachment was to anticipate a situation like the one that is before us today,” Feldman said. “If we cannot impeach a president who uses his power for personal advantage, we no longer live in a democracy, we live in a monarchy or in a dictatorship.”

Professor Michael Gerhardt of the University of North Carolina agreed.

“If what we’re talking about is not impeachable,” Gerhard said, then nothing is impeachable.”

Stanford Law School professor Pamela Karlan joined in.

“Because this is an abuse that cuts to the heart of democracy,” Karlan said, “you need to ask yourself, if you don’t impeach a president who has done what this president has done … then what you’re saying is, it’s fine to go ahead and do this again.”

That essentially was the argument made by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in giving a green light to the Judiciary Committee to write articles of impeachment after first cautioning her House caucus to go slowly and deliberately in the process.

The one legal expert siding with the Republicans on Wednesday, George Washington University professor Jonathan Turley, said the Democrats were rushing to judgment.

“If the House proceeds solely on the Ukrainian allegations,” Turley said, “this impeachment would stand out among modern impeachments as the shortest proceeding, with the thinnest evidentiary record and the narrowest grounds, ever used to impeach a president. That does not bode well for future presidents who are working in a country often sharply and, at times, bitterly divided.”

The Democrats, however, are clearly more concerned about the behavior of this president, not some unknown future one. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler ended Wednesday’s testimony by observing that it had met the test for which it was called: demonstrating that Trump had committed an impeachable act that was a “direct threat” to the constitutional process.

In the end, the rather academic exercise offered by the four impeachment experts probably did little or nothing to change the minds of legislators on both sides.

The fate of the Trump presidency, meanwhile, seems destined to remain on the track of House impeachment and Senate acquittal, unless a new bombshell of evidence or testimony breaks the partisan standoff in the existing political climate.

No president has ever been impeached and convicted. Andrew Johnson escaped conviction by a single vote, and Bill Clinton was spared by the shamed diversion of Democratic eyes from his ugly behavior. Trump in the end may well have the same fortune.

Editor’s note: Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at juleswitcovercomcast.net.

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