To find out, the House Committee on the Judiciary held a sort of seance Wednesday.
“Some day we will no longer be alive, and we’ll go wherever it is we go — the good place or the other place,” said one of the Democrats’ witnesses, Noah Feldman, a professor at Harvard Law School. “And, you know, we may meet there [James] Madison and [Alexander] Hamilton, and they will ask us: ‘When the president of the United States acted to corrupt the structure of the republic, what did you do?’ ”
Rep. Douglas A. Collins (R-Ga.), the ranking member on the committee, was perturbed by the casting of the founders as a spectral jury. But his party’s single witness assured everybody that touching base with the dead was normal in their field.
“It’s a form of necromancy that academics do all the time,” noted Jonathan Turley, a professor at George Washington University Law School, “and that’s what we get paid for.”
After last month’s testimony from bow-tied diplomats and stone-faced bureaucrats — “fact witnesses” who actually saw or heard Trump’s inciting behavior — the impeachment process has reached the peer-review phase. During this hearing, professors referenced a 1640 sermon by John Winthrop and a 1792 edition of Samuel Johnson’s dictionary. There were multiple odes to forgotten founder William Richardson Davie, the onetime governor of North Carolina who argued fiercely for an impeachment provision in drafts of the Constitution. Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) had in front of him a tattered college copy of the Federalist Papers, scrawled with marginalia.
For some Republicans, this was a one-way ticket to snoozetown.
“I don’t think too many people are going to watch, because it’ll be boring,” Trump said from England, where he was attending a NATO confab.
“This is going to be a weird day,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), a staunch Trump ally, sitting in his office about an hour before the hearing began. He had recently gone on Stephen K. Bannon’s radio show and warned about the Democrats’ witnesses: “pious, condescending” law professors who would “really talk down to the MAGA movement.” On Wednesday he was still in a trollish mood. He recalled how much he disliked lectures in law school. But today he would be expected to meet intellectual pedantry with populist theater.
“I think anything less than me walking in with a fog machine, pyrotechnics and a WWE belt around my waist is going to be viewed as not meeting expectations,” he said.
The Republican posture in Room 1100 of the Longworth House Office Building wasn’t quite that dramatic, but Collins opened with a taunt.
“America will see why most people don’t go to law school,” Collins said in his opening remarks. “No offense to our professors. But please. Really?” Collins questioned the relevance of their expertise and suggested that there was no way they could’ve reviewed all the evidence and reports related to the impeachment inquiry.
When it was time for her opening statement, Stanford Law School professor Pamela S. Karlan departed from her prepared remarks to jab the ranking member in the ribs.
“Mr. Collins, I would like to say to you, sir, that I read transcripts of every one of the witnesses who appeared in the live hearing,” she said forcefully, “because I would not speak about these things without reviewing the facts. So I’m insulted by the suggestion that as a law professor I don’t care about those facts.”
But the atmosphere ultimately settled into something more like a seminar hall than a wrestling arena. Wednesday’s hearing was another fascinating (if ponderous) episode in the impeachment of the 45th president. The lines to get into the hearing room were short. At times, the spectator portion of the gallery was only half full (or half empty, if you’re feeling particularly bearish on tripartite governance). Collins was hung up on the comfort level of the room, which normally belongs to the House Ways and Means Committee.
“This is the coldest hearing room in the world,” Collins said from the dais, adding: “I’m happy as a lark but this chair is terrible. I mean, it is amazing.”
Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), who had strapped some kind of back cushion on his chair, was sallow of face and lugubrious in tone. He had been in this position before, in a way. As a New York state assemblyman in the 1980s, Nadler had fought against Trump’s proposed development project on the West Side of Manhattan. Now, Nadler was quoting Hamilton to call Trump a despot, an embarrassment, a “most deadly adversary” of government.
Nadler’s three witnesses were in agreement, at least on one main point: Trump has committed impeachable offenses. Their reviews were scathing.
The president’s conditioning of aid to Ukraine “clearly constitutes impeachable high crimes and misdemeanors under the Constitution,” said Feldman, of Harvard.
“What has happened in the case today is something that I do not think we have ever seen before: a president who has doubled down on violating his oath,” said Karlan, of Stanford.
“This president has attacked each of the Constitution’s safeguards against establishing a monarchy in this country,” said Michael Gerhardt, a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law.
During a 10-minute break in the hearing, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) called the proceeding “somber and sober.” Collins called it “very esoteric.” After the committee broke for votes, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.) used his five minutes to unspool a monologue about how “the only thing that is disputed more than the facts of this case is the statement that the facts are undisputed.” Hours into the hearing, after Karlan made a clumsy pun using the name of Trump’s youngest son, Matt Gaetz pounced.
“When you try to make a little joke out of referencing Barron Trump, that does not lend credibility to your argument,” Gaetz said stridently. “It makes you look mean.” Melania Trump’s Twitter account said that Karlan “should be ashamed of your very angry and obviously biased public pandering, and using a child to do it.”
In calmer moments, Turley, the George Washington professor, discouraged impeachment and cited the absence of direct evidence and established crimes. He warned the committee that its actions, which would affect all future presidencies, should not be motivated by emotions.
“We are living in the very period described by Alexander Hamilton: a period of agitated passions,” Turley said. “I get it. You’re mad. The president’s mad. My Republican friends are mad. My Democratic friends are mad. My wife is mad. My kids are mad. Even my dog seems mad, and Luna is a goldendoodle, and they don’t get mad.”
Turley had also been in this position before, in November 1998, when the same committee heard his testimony in favor of the impeachment of Bill Clinton.
“I personally must say I find [Ben] Franklin’s words the most interesting and the most influential on my view,” Turley said then. “Franklin at one point defines impeachment as a process by which we respond to conduct that he called ‘obnoxious.’ ”
Over in Hertfordshire, England, Trump was joking about referring to the prime minister of Canada as “two-faced.” Before a working lunch with world leaders, the president quipped: “That was funny when I said that guy was two-faced.”