WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - President Donald Trump's actions to prod Ukraine to pursue investigations that could benefit him politically represent impeachable offences, constitutional law experts called by Democrats testified to the United States Congress on Wednesday (Dec 4) as lawmakers laid the groundwork for formal charges against Mr Trump.
At a House of Representatives Judiciary Committee hearing featuring political theatrics, three law professors chosen by the Democrats made clear that they believed Mr Trump's actions constituted impeachable offences including abuse of power, bribery, obstruction of Congress and obstruction of justice.
A law professor selected by Mr Trump's fellow Republicans disagreed, saying the Democratic-led impeachment inquiry was "slipshod" and "rushed" and lacked testimony from people with direct knowledge of the relevant events, adding that current evidence does not show Mr Trump committed "a clear criminal act".
As Mr Trump headed towards possible impeachment in the Democratic-controlled House within weeks, Republican lawmakers repeatedly tried to interrupt the hearing by raising objections and points of order.
The impeachment inquiry, launched in September, focuses on Mr Trump's request on Ukraine to conduct investigations that could harm Democratic political rival Joe Biden. Representative Doug Collins, the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, said the impeachment drive - or as he called it a "railroad job" - was motivated by the deep-seated hatred Democrats feel towards Mr Trump since he won the 2016 election.
The hearing was the committee's first to examine whether Mr Trump's actions qualify as "high crimes and misdemeanors" punishable by impeachment under the US Constitution. The panel would draft any articles of impeachment - formal charges - against Mr Trump. If the House approves such charges, the Senate then would hold a trial on whether to remove him from office.
Mr Trump has denied wrongdoing.
In London for a Nato meeting, Mr Trump called a report by House Democrats released on Tuesday that laid out possible grounds for impeachment a "joke" and appeared to question the patriotism of the Democrats, asking, "Do they in fact love our country?"
The inquiry's focus is a July 25 telephone call in which Mr Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to open an investigation into Mr Biden and his son Hunter Biden and into a discredited theory promoted by Mr Trump's allies that Ukraine, not Russia, meddled in the 2016 US election.
Mr Hunter Biden had joined the board of Ukrainian energy company Burisma while his father was US vice-president. Mr Trump has accused the Bidens of corruption, without offering evidence.
They have denied wrongdoing.
Harvard University law professor Noah Feldman, called by the Democrats, testified that Mr Trump's conduct embodies the concern expressed by the Constitution's 18th century authors "that a sitting president would corruptly abuse the powers of office to distort the outcome of a presidential election in his favour".
"If we cannot impeach a president who abuses his office for personal advantage, we no longer live in a democracy. We live in a monarchy or we live under a dictatorship," Prof Feldman added.
Stanford University law school professor Pamela Karlan said Mr Trump abused his power by demanding foreign involvement in a US election, adding that his actions "struck at the very heart of what makes this country the republic to which we pledge allegiance".
"While the president can name his son Barron, he can't make him a baron," Prof Karlan added, prompting a Twitter post by White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham calling the professor "classless" for using the president's son as a "punchline".
Prof Karlan said Mr Trump's actions constitute bribery as understood by the Constitution's framers. Asked whether his demands on Ukraine established the high crime of bribery, she said: "Yes they do."
'A KING ON AMERICAN SOIL'
George Washington University Law School professor Jonathan Turley - the only witness chosen by the Republicans, though he said he voted against Mr Trump in 2016 - disagreed that the president's actions constituted bribery and said the evidence does not adequately support the Democrats' allegations.
Prof Turley admonished Mr Trump over the Zelensky call - disagreeing with the president that it was "perfect" - and said leveraging US military aid to investigate a political opponent "if proven, can be an impeachable offence".
University of North Carolina law professor Michael Gerhardt appeared to criticise Republicans for "leaving unchecked a president's assaults on our Constitution".
"If Congress fails to impeach here, then the impeachment process has lost all meaning, and, along with that, our Constitution's carefully crafted safeguards against the establishment of a king on American soil. No one, not even the president, is beyond the reach of our Constitution and our laws," he said.
Democrats have accused Mr Trump of abusing his power by withholding US$391 million (S$530 million) in security aid to Ukraine - a US ally facing Russian aggression - as leverage to pressure Kiev into conducting the two investigations politically beneficial to Mr Trump and for granting Mr Zelensky a coveted White House visit.
The money, approved by Congress, was provided to Ukraine in September, only after the controversy had spilled into public view.
Republicans complained that the inquiry lacked testimony from people with direct knowledge of the events. Mr Trump has instructed current and former members of his administration not to testify or produce documents, leading senior officials like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to defy House subpoenas.
No president has ever been removed from office through impeachment, though Republican Richard Nixon resigned in 1974 after the House began the impeachment process in the Watergate corruption scandal. Two other presidents were impeached by the House but acquitted by the Senate.
The committee could soon recommend articles of impeachment against Mr Trump, setting up a possible vote by the full House before Christmas, followed by a Senate trial in January.
Republicans, who control the Senate, have shown little appetite for removing Mr Trump.