On the 77th day of the House of Representatives’ impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump, and after a series of often contentious public hearings, the House Judiciary Committee introduced two articles of impeachment on Dec. 10. The articles accuse President Trump of abusing the power of his office and obstruction of Congress, setting up a constitutional clash between the two branches of government that has only occurred three times before in U.S. history.
The Democratic-led Judiciary Committee began debating the articles Dec. 11. If a majority of Judiciary Committee lawmakers affirm the articles, the full House could vote on the articles as soon as the following week.
The articles of impeachment focused narrowly on the president’s conduct in pressuring Ukraine’s president to investigate his potential 2020 election rival former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter, in exchange for a White House meeting and nearly $400 million in U.S. military aid – in addition to Trump’s decision to defy all subpoenas for documents and the testimony of key administration officials. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Marjorie Cohn, professor emerita at Thomas Jefferson School of Law and past president of the National Lawyers Guild, who examines the House move to impeach Donald Trump and the impact of his expected acquittal in a future Senate trial.
MARJORIE COHN: Barry Berke, the Democratic counsel, took on several of the excuses the Republicans are making for Trump and shot them down nicely like a good attorney does. First of all, the Republicans say, “Well, the military assistance to Ukraine was eventually released. No harm, no foul.” Yes, but only after Trump got caught red-handed, two days after the investigation became public – that’s when he finally released the aid. And the Republicans were referring to it as a pause in this military assistance. But, of course, the president had no right at all to withhold aid that Congress had appropriated.
Another defense that the Republicans put forward is that, “Well, Donald Trump, he’s motivated by an anti-corruption agenda. He’s opposed to corruption in Ukraine. And that’s what’s motivating him.” But on that July 25th phone call, in spite of talking points that his high-level staff had given him, Trump didn’t even mention corruption in Ukraine. All he mentioned were these two investigations, one of the Bidens and two, of a discredited theory that Ukraine meddled in the 2016 election – that he wanted (Ukraine President Volodymyr) Zelensky to go forward with those.
Another defense is, “Well, Ukraine said they didn’t feel pressured.” Well, at times there are officials who said, “We didn’t feel pressured.” But, they desperately needed that military assistance – that some almost $400 million in military assistance – and Zelensky, who was a newly-elected president, for his international credibility really wanted and needed a meeting with Trump in the White House. And in fact, several things that he said, and that Ambassador (Gordon) Sondland said, made it clear that they did feel pressured. In fact, there was a telephone call between Sondland and Trump, and this came out at the hearing as well. Sondland was the ambassador to the EU.
Sondland said to Trump on the phone, “President Zelensky loves your ass.” And Trump replied, “Is he going to do the investigations?” And Sondland said, “He will do whatever you ask.” And that’s evidence that Zelensky was totally intimidated and willing to do whatever it took to get that military aid and that meeting in the White House.
And then another defense is, well, Donald Trump never said there wasa quid pro quo. In other words, tit for tat – “tit for tat” meaning that he would not release the military aid or give Zelensky a White House meeting until Zelensky at least announced that he was doing these investigations. But there does not need to be a quid pro quo to have a bribery. There can be bribery, attempted bribery without the bribe, without the tit for tat actually happening.
Finally, one of the Republican talking points is, “Well, why are we rushing this? Why are the Democrats rushing this impeachment? They should wait for more witnesses to testify.” Well, the problem is that Trump is obstructing and preventing witnesses from testifying – witnesses and documents. And this is when Barry Berke said, “like Donald Trump did when he interfered with the Robert Mueller investigation.”
BETWEEN THE LINES: If the predictions are correct, the Republican-dominated Senate, which will conduct a trial if the House moves the impeachment forward. That trial will be conducted by rules set by the Republicans. And there’s a lot of consensus that because the Republicans have the majority, they will not vote to convict and remove Donald Trump from office. And therefore, we have the prospect of Donald Trump running around the country during the 2020 campaign talking about his acquittal and how this whole thing was a hoax. What’s the lasting damage from that outcome, which is widely predicted?
MARJORIE COHN: People say, “Well, you know, Clinton was popular, you know, was very popular after he was acquitted in the Senate.” But Clinton started out much more popular than Trump in the first place. He was well over 50 percent, I think 60 percent approval. And Trump is down in the 40s or 40 percent approval rating.
Trump has decided to completely stonewall the House inquiry – hasn’t mounted a defense. He certainly will mount a defense in the Senate. It will be very contentious. People will see it in real time and he will claim victory once he’s acquitted. But I think that having watched the hearings, the House hearings, and then the Senate trial, that has weakened him in the eyes of voters and there was just a statement signed by 350 psychiatrists and psychologists saying that the impeachment process has really made Trump so unstable. He could go off the rails and really imperil the U.S. even further, so he could be freaking out. Who knows what he’ll do between now and the Senate trial. All bets are off, but I don’t think that him just claiming victory from a Senate acquittal is going to fool the American people. I think this whole process will really hobble him ultimately.
For more information, visit Marjorie Cohn’s website at MarjorieCohn.com.