Lisa Mascaro and Mary Clare Jalonick
WASHINGTON (AP) — Three leading legal scholars testified that President Donald Trump's attempts to have Ukraine investigate Democratic rivals are grounds for impeachment, bolstering the Democrats' case as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made sure they're prepared for that momentous next step.
Yet a fourth expert called by Republicans at the Judiciary Committee on Wednesday warned against rushing the process, arguing this would be the shortest of impeachment proceedings, with the "thinnest" record of evidence in modern times, setting a worrisome standard.
Meeting behind closed doors ahead of the initial Judiciary hearing to consider potential articles of impeachment, Pelosi asked House Democrats a simple question: "Are you ready?"
The answer was a resounding yes.
Though no date has been set, the Democrats are charging toward a Christmastime vote on removing the 45th president. It's a starkly partisan undertaking, a situation Pelosi hoped to avoid but now seems inevitable.
Trump is alleged to have abused the power of his office by putting personal political gain over national security interests, engaging in bribery by withholding $400 million in military aid Congress had approved for Ukraine; and then obstructing Congress by stonewalling the investigation.
Across the Capitol on Wednesday, the polarizing political divide over impeachment, only the fourth such inquiry in the nation's history, was on display.
At the Judiciary hearing Democrats sided with the scholars who said Trump's actions reached the Constitution's threshold of "bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors." Republicans pointed to the lone professor they were allowed to invite, who said impeachment was not warranted.
Democrats in the House say the inquiry is a duty. Republican representatives say it's a sham. And quietly senators of both parties conferred on Wednesday, preparing for an eventual Trump trial.
"Never before, in the history of the republic, have we been forced to consider the conduct of a president who appears to have solicited personal, political favors from a foreign government," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., as he gaveled open the landmark House hearing.
Nadler said Trump's phone call seeking a "favor" from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy wasn't the first time he had sought foreign help to influence an American election, noting Russian interference in 2016. He warned against inaction with a new campaign underway.
"We cannot wait for the election," he said. " If we do not act to hold him in check, now, President Trump will almost certainly try again to solicit interference in the election for his personal political gain."
Trump, attending a NATO meeting in London, called the hearing a "joke" and doubted many people would watch because it's "boring."
Once an outsider to the GOP, Trump now has Republicans' unwavering support. They joined in his name-calling the Judiciary proceedings a "disgrace" and unfair, the dredging up of unfounded allegations as part of an effort to undo the 2016 election and remove him from office.
"You just don't like the guy," said Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on the panel. Trump rewarded some of his allies with politically valuable presidential tweets as the daylong hearing dragged into the evening.
Despite the intent of America's Founding Fathers to create a durable system of legal checks and balances, impeachment is an admittedly political exercise. Thus Pelosi asked her still-new majority if they were willing to press onward, aware of still-uncertain electoral risks.
At the Democrats' private morning meeting, support for the impeachment effort was vigorous, though voting to remove Trump could come hard for some lawmakers in regions where the president has substantial backing.
The Democratic lawmakers also delivered a standing ovation to Rep. Adam Schiff, whose 300-page Intelligence Committee report cataloged potential grounds for impeachment, overwhelmingly indicating they want to continue to press the inquiry rather than slow its advance or call a halt for fear of political costs in next year's congressional elections. The meeting was described by people familiar with it, who were unauthorized to discuss it by name and were granted anonymity.
Meanwhile, Trump's team fanned out across the Capitol with Vice President Mike Pence meeting with House Republicans and White House officials conferring with Senate Republicans to prepare for what could be the first presidential impeachment trial in a generation.
White House Counsel Pat Cipollone, who has declined for now to participate in the House proceedings, relayed Trump's hope that the impeachment effort can be stopped in the House and there will be no need for a Senate trial, which seems unlikely.
White House officials and others said Trump is eager to have his say. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said, "He feels like he has had no opportunity to tell his side of the story."
Trump lambastes the impeachment probe daily and proclaims his innocence of any wrongdoing at length, but he has declined to testify before House hearings or answer questions in writing.
At the heart of the inquiry is his July 25 phone call asking Ukraine to investigate rival Democrats including Joe Biden. Trump at the time was withholding $400 million in military aid from the ally, which faced an aggressive Russia on its border.
At Wednesday's session, three legal experts called by Democrats said impeachment was merited.
Noah Feldman, a Harvard Law School professor, said he considered it clear that the president's conduct met the definition of "high crimes and misdemeanors." Said Michael Gerhardt, a University of North Carolina law professor, "If what we're talking about is not impeachable ... then nothing is impeachable."
Pamela Karlan, a Stanford Law School professor and former Obama administration Justice Department official, drew criticism for mentioning Trump's teenage son, Barron, in a wordplay, violating an unwritten but firm Washington rule against dragging first family's children into politics.
The only Republican witness, Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University, dissented from the other legal experts. He said the Democrats were bringing a "slipshod impeachment" case against the president, but he didn't excuse Trump's behavior.
"It is not wrong because President Trump is right," Turley said. "A case for impeachment could be made, but it cannot be made on this record."
New telephone records released with the House report deepened Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani's known involvement in what investigators call the "scheme."
Asked about that, Trump told reporters he doesn't know why Giuliani was calling the White House Office of Management and Budget, which was withholding the military aid to Ukraine.
"You have to ask him," Trump said. "Sounds like something that's not so complicated. ... No big deal."
Based on two months of investigation sparked by a still-anonymous government whistleblower's complaint, the Intelligence Committee's Trump-Ukraine Impeachment Inquiry Report found that Trump "sought to undermine the integrity of the U.S. presidential election process and endangered U.S. national security." When Congress began investigating, it says, Trump obstructed the investigation like no other president in history.
Republicans defended the president in a 123-page rebuttal claiming Trump never intended to pressure Ukraine when he asked for investigations of Biden and his son.
Democrats once hoped to sway Republicans to consider Trump's removal, but they are now facing an ever-hardening partisan split over the swift-moving proceedings that are dividing Congress and the country.
While liberal Democrats are pushing the party to incorporate the findings from former special counsel Robert Mueller's report on Russian interference in the 2016 election and other actions by Trump, more centrist and moderate Democrats prefer to stick with the Ukraine matter as a simpler narrative that Americans understand.
Democrats could begin drafting articles of impeachment in a matter of days, with a Judiciary Committee vote next week. The full House could vote by Christmas. Then the matter would move to the Senate for a trial in 2020.
Associated Press writers Matthew Daly, Zeke Miller, Alan Fram, Andrew Taylor, Colleen Long, Eric Tucker and Padmananda Rama contributed to this report.