Trump Impeachment Hearings: Legal Scholars' Testimony In Both Trump, Clinton Cases Stress 'Abuse of Power'

The House Judiciary held its first impeachment Wednesday with four legal scholars testifying about whether Congress has the grounds to impeach President Donald Trump. Two of those scholars did the same when former President Bill Clinton was impeached in 1998.

Those two scholars— Michael Gerhardt of the University of North Carolina and Jonathan Turley of George Washington University—were split in their decisions in each case.

In Wednesday's hearings, Gerhardt said Trump's actions were impeachable offenses but indicated Clinton's were not. Turley argued said there were no grounds to impeach Trump, but in 1998, said Clinton could be impeached.

In both cases, however, most scholars called by both Democrats and Republicans said abuses of power may have been committed and lawmakers had the grounds to impeach a sitting president.

As House Democrats head down that path for Trump, here's a look at what the legal experts said in each case.

On impeaching Clinton

The Committee on the Judiciary House of Representatives called more than a dozen scholars to testify about the history and background of impeachment while Congress weighed whether Clinton lied under oath about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, false statements made during Paula Jones' deposition, false statements made by his lawyer, and his attempt to tamper with witness testimony. The House impeached Clinton for obstruction of justice by tampering with witness testimony and lying under oath. Here are comments from six of those scholars:

Former University of Chicago law professor Cass Sunstein: "I suggest that this case is not close to the line that would be raised by a case involving misuse of distinctly presidential power or imaginable horrendous cases, such as those involving murder or rape and the like."

Harvard Law professor Laurence Tribe wrote: "[T]hey do not bring into play any of the Constitution's substantive or structural limitations on the unauthorized assertion of power by the national legislature.''

Gerhardt, who was summoned by both Republicans and Democrats: "In the paradigmatic case, there must be a nexus between the misconduct of an impeachable official and the latter's official duties. It is this paradigm that Hamilton captured so dramatically in his suggestion that impeachable offenses derive from 'the abuse or violation of some public trust' and are 'of nature which may be peculiar propriety be denominated political, as they relate chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself.' This paradigm is also implicit in the founders' many references to abuses or power as constituting political crimes or impeachable offenses."

Turley: "You should not be misled. Your decision will define executive power and authority. If you decide that certain acts do not rise to impeachable offenses, you will expand the space for executive conduct, and we will have to live with that expansion."

Today’s Republican witness Jonathan Turley opposes impeaching Trump, yet he supported impeaching Bill Clinton in 1998.

Here’s what he told Congress back then: “If you decide that certain acts do not rise to impeachable offenses, you will expand the space for executive conduct.”

— Keith Boykin (@keithboykin) December 4, 2019

Former Duke law professor William Van Alstyne: "The further impeachment pursuit of Mr. Clinton may well not now be particularly worthwhile."

On Trump's case:

Four scholars testified at Trump's impeachment hearing on Wednesday, three of whom were called by Democrats. Three, including Gerhardt, indicated Trump may have committed impeachable defenses, while Turley, the witness called by Republicans, appeared to defend the president.

Stanford University law professor Pamela S. Karlan: "The evidence reveals a president who used the powers of his office to demand that a foreign government participate in undermining a competing candidate for the presidency."

Gerhardt: "The president's serious misconduct, including bribery, soliciting a personal favor from a foreign leader in exchange for his exercise of power, and obstructing justice and Congress are worse than the misconduct of any prior president, including what previous presidents who faced impeachment have done or been accused of doing."

Turley: "I am concerned about lowering impeachment standards to fit a paucity of evidence and an abundance of anger." He added: "If the House proceeds solely on the Ukrainian allegations, 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."

Harvard Law School professor Noah Feldman: "President Trump has committed impeachable high crimes and misdemeanors by corruptly abusing the office of the presidency."

Clinton Impeachment
Members of the House Judiciary Committee discuss articles of impeachment against US President Bill Clinton 11 December on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The panel approved a perjury article of impeachment minutes after Clinton publicly expressed "profound remorse" over the nationwide turmoil resulting from the impeachment proceedings. Constitutional Scholars during Clinton's impeachment focused on whether or not the president had exercised an abuse of power. PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty

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