Over the course of eight hours on Wednesday, the first impeachment hearing in the House Judiciary Committee—designed to place the allegations against President Trump in constitutional context—saw at least eight parliamentary interruptions from Republicans on the committee.
It saw dozens and dozens of mentions of the Founding Fathers and one heated back-and-forth as to what they might have thought about President Trump’s conduct if they were around today. There was one theatrical eye-roll from the committee’s top Republican when the Democratic chairman delivered his opening statement, and at least two stifled smirks from Democrats when a GOP firebrand, Rep. Jim Jordan, spoke.
On the witness stand, there were three impeachment-supportive law professors called by Democrats, one of whom, Pamela Karlan, got in a near-shouting match with Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL). And there was one impeachment-skeptical professor called by Republicans, Jonathan Turley, who submitted a 53-page opening statement and invoked the Dover Treaty of 1670, necromancy, and an angry golden doodle named Luna one time each.
At the conclusion of the day, however, the most important number remained unclear: were any minds actually changed about whether or not to impeach Trump?
Judiciary’s re-entry into the impeachment fray comes at a moment of near-total saturation on all things impeachment: the public had just taken in two weeks of wall-to-wall coverage of hearings featuring key witnesses in the Ukraine matter. The evidence at hand is well-known, and the bulk of the work left to do in Judiciary focuses on drawing up articles of impeachment, not necessarily building support for them.
But Democrats say that’s not supposed to be the point of Judiciary’s hearings at this stage. Many of them acknowledge that by now, public opinion on impeachment is close to set, and a dramatic swing one way or the other is unlikely, barring any new revelations.
“I don't think the purpose of an impeachment hearing, frankly, is to persuade the American people,” said Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), a Judiciary member. “You look at the math—there's like, 10 percent that have not reached a decision, so I think within that group, maybe some people will watch the hearing and come to some conclusion.”
But Democrats say they have an obligation to present the evidence already gathered in a setting that places it in the proper historic and legal context for impeachment—and sets up the decision of whether or not they proceed with articles of impeachment.
“We ought to be making a decision in the context of these impeachment hearings, based on the evidence and the law and the Constitution,” said Cicilline. “This is about sharing with the American people the facts, the evidence, and the prevailing constitutional standards, because after all, the democracy that we are fighting to protect belongs to them.”
Wednesday’s hearing underscores the challenges facing Democrats as they enter the final stage of the impeachment inquiry: they want to proceed quickly, but not so quickly as to deprive the minority or the president himself of an opportunity to participate. And they’re cognizant of not looking like they’re rushing to judgment, with some lawmakers saying they are not sure how they would vote on impeachment—or if such a vote would happen at all—even though many have argued that Trump’s conduct on Ukraine is impeachable.
Though no schedule has been formally set, it is widely expected that the House will vote on articles of impeachment before Congress goes home for Christmas. Before then, the Judiciary Committee will need to craft, debate, and vote on the articles before they can be approved by the full House. What’s unclear is exactly how many hearings like Wednesday’s will happen before then; it’s possible, Democrats say, that someone from the House Intelligence Committee majority will appear to present their 300-plus page report on their investigation into the Ukraine saga.
It’s a tight timeline already, but some Democrats are starting to get antsy, particularly those from the caucus’ left wing. One progressive, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), has called on Judiciary to get down to business and proceed to a vote on articles of impeachment, arguing the required evidence is in plain sight.
Judiciary does have a process to undertake, Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI) told The Daily Beast, but “not an incredibly long one.”
“It’s pretty clear when you read the intel report, they’re recommending articles of impeachment,” said Pocan, who co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “I think he did impeachable offenses, but of course, everyone wants to see what they put together… But to act coy, that’s not so credible.”
Republicans seemed to revel in this tension, arguing that Democrats—driven to the edge by their frenzied, anti-Trump constituents—had already made up their mind on impeachment and were putting on a show that amounted to procedural filler.
In fact, argued several GOP lawmakers, Democratic members of the Judiciary Committee had already supported an impeachment inquiry long beforehand, based on the allegations of obstruction of justice outlined in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report. “Sixteen of them,” Jordan said, pointing to the Democratic side of the dais, “had voted to move forward on impeachment.”
“Today, we’re talking about whether positions they’ve already taken are constitutional!” he said in disbelief.
The three Democrat-called witnesses were as frequently a target for GOP ire as their Democratic rivals were. They sought to frame them as equally Trump-crazed: early in the proceeding, Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.), a top Trump ally on the Hill, tweeted that the witnesses had won “Dems’ nationwide talent search for the most elitist, unhinged anti-Trump professors in America. These meltdowns based on triggered emotions, 3% of the facts & ignoring the other 97% of the story is a permanent stain on US history.”
Karlan, an election law expert at Stanford University, was a particular target. In his questioning, Gaetz sought to grill her on her past campaign contributions to Democrats, asking why she gave more money to Hillary Clinton’s campaign than to Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s. “Because I have been giving a lot more money to charity because there are a lot of poor people in the United States,” she replied.
And when Karlan attempted an ill-advised joke by saying Trump “can name his son Barron but he cannot make him a baron,” Republicans blew it up into an epic offense, prompting the Trump campaign and GOP leaders in Congress to demand she—and Democrats—apologize for it. Karlan later did apologize.
The day’s sniping was expected for a committee known for its partisan brawlers on both sides of the aisle. Given that context, the mostly plodding nature of the day’s proceedings relieved Democrats, many of whom said they were pleased with how the marathon hearing ultimately went.
Near the end of the hearing, Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-PA) thanked the professors for “bringing the Constitution to life.”
“There's a section of the public that remains unconvinced,” insisted Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA). “It's that group of people that perhaps have been positively impacted by today's discussion by these constitutional scholars.”