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Stanford Law professor testifies in House Judiciary Committee’s first impeachment hearing

Pamela Karlan tells House Judiciary Committee that President Donald Trump’s actions would have “horrified” founding fathers

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Stanford Law Professor Pamela Karlan testified before the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday to discuss the constitutional grounds for presidential impeachment. Karlan was called as a witness to guide the committee through the standards and protocols for impeachment alongside three other law professors — Noah Feldman from Harvard Law School, Michael Gerhardt from the University of North Carolina School of Law and Jonathan Turley from the George Washington University Law School.

Wednesday’s hearing comes on the heels of the investigation by the House Intelligence Committee into President Donald Trump, which culminated in a report released on Tuesday. The committee claims that they “uncovered a months-long effort by President Trump to use the powers of his office to solicit foreign interference on his behalf in the 2020 election.” 

The report also alleges that Trump withheld $391 million in military aid urgently needed by Ukraine to resist Russian aggression until Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky publicly announced investigations into Trump’s political opponent, Joe Biden, and his son, Hunter Biden.

Chairman Jerry Nadler of New York opened up the hearing by walking the committee through the accepted fact pattern based on the report released yesterday. Ranking member Doug Collins of Georgia responded to Nadler’s opening statement, questioning why the four legal scholars were called to testify. He claimed the four professors could not have possibly had the chance to fully digest the report from Tuesday. 

“Really?” Collins said. “The American people [are] really gonna look at this and say ‘huh?’”

 The witnesses were each provided 10 minutes to give opening statements. Afterwards, the floor was opened up for questioning. 

The Daily has reached out to Karlan for comment on her portion of the hearing process. 

Legal testimony: ‘Trump must be held to account’

Karlan began her testimony by concluding that “President Trump invited — indeed, demanded — foreign involvement in our upcoming election” which constitutes an abuse of power. 

She also responded to Collins’s criticisms that the professors could be adequately prepared to testify in such a short period of time.

“I read transcripts of every one of the witnesses who appeared in the live hearing 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,” Karlan said. 

She then gave a brief overview of the history of impeachment and the constitution. 

“One of the key reasons for including an impeachment power was the risk that unscrupulous officials might try to rig the election process,” she said. “The very idea that a President might seek the aid of a foreign government in his reelection campaign would have horrified” the founding fathers. 

Karlan added her belief that the evidentiary record clearly shows that Trump strong armed Zelensky into smearing one of his political opponents. She claimed that this “is not politics as usual — at least not in the United States or any other mature democracy. It is, instead, a cardinal reason why the Constitution contains an impeachment power.” 

She closed her written testimony with the conclusion that “if we are to keep faith with the Constitution and our Republic, President Trump must be held to account.”

Feldman’s testimony struck a similar chord. He agreed with Karlan that Trump has committed impeachable offenses, and “the framers provided for the impeachment of the president because they feared that the president might abuse the power of his office” for his own benefit or to corrupt elections. 

Gerhardt drew parallels between former President Richard Nixon’s misconduct in the Watergate scandal and the current inquiry. However, he added that Trump’s actions “are worse than the misconduct of any prior president.” 

“No one, not even the president, is above the law,” Gerhardt said. “If left unchecked, the President will likely continue his pattern of soliciting foreign interference on behalf of the next election and of course his obstruction of Congress.” 

As the only witness invited by the Republican members of the committee, Turley diverged from his colleagues. He made it clear that while he was not a supporter of President Trump, he was concerned about “lowering impeachment standards to fit a paucity of evidence and an abundance of anger.” He claimed that these impeachment proceedings would be the shortest in modern history, and the evidentiary record would be “the narrowest grounds ever used to impeach a president.”

Witness questioning

Immediately following the written testimony of the four professors, the Chairman and his counsel, Norman Eisen, began questioning the witnesses. 

When asked what the House of Representatives’ responsibility to impeach the President should mean, Karlan said, “this is an abuse that cuts to the heart of democracy.” She advised Congress that if they chose not to impeach the President, it sends a message to “go ahead and do this again.” 

In response to criticism that the impeachment inquiry was conveniently timed to hurt Trump’s chances in the 2020 election, Karlan directed the committee to return to the Constitution. 

“The Constitution of the United States does not care whether the next president of the United States is Donald J. Trump or any one of the Democrats or anybody running on a third party,” she said staunchly. “The Constitution is indifferent to that.”

She further cautioned that American military and economic interests were not the only values at stake. She quoted John Winthrop and Ronald Reagan, saying America has become “the shining city on a hill. We have become the nation that leads the world in understanding what democracy is.” 

She also expressed worry that “if we look hypocritical about this, if we look like we’re asking other countries to interfere in our election, if we look like we’re asking other countries to engage in criminal investigations of our president’s political opponents, then we’re not doing our job of promoting our national interest in being that shining city on a hill.”

Karlan came under fire after the hearing for a quip that implicated President Trump’s young son, Barron.

 “The Constitution says there can be no titles of nobility, so while the president can name his son Barron, he cannot make him a baron,” she said. 

First Lady Melania Trump responded to the joke on Twitter, writing, “a minor child deserves privacy and should be kept out of politics. Pamela Karlan, you should be ashamed of your very angry and obviously biased public pandering, and using a child to do it.” 

At the end of the hearing, Karlan apologized for her comments, saying, “I want to apologize for what I said earlier about the president’s son. It was wrong of me to do that. I wish the president would apologize, obviously, for the things that he’s done that’s wrong, but I do regret having said that.” 

Karlan did not respond to The Daily’s request for comment on this matter.

The impact of Wednesday’s hearing is currently unclear, but prior to the testimony of the four legal scholars the committee agreed to call Adam Schiff ’82 of California, Chairman of the United States House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence to testify. Many news publications including The New York Times and Slate characterize Wednesday’s hearing as the next step on the road to impeachment, and it is expected the Democrats in the House of Representatives will move to impeach President Trump in the coming weeks. 

Karlan is an expert on constitutional law and is no stranger to the American court system. She has argued before the Supreme Court nine times, and previously clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun. Earlier this year, Karlan argued the case Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia before the Supreme Court, defending an interpretation of federal law that forbids job discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. 

Karlan is the Kenneth and Harle Montgomery Professor of Public Interest Law and also co-directs Stanford Law School’s Supreme Court litigation clinic. In addition to her work at the law school, she teaches the freshman Thinking Matters course, Justice and the University. 

Contact Emma Talley at emmat332 ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

This article has been updated with details from the controversy regarding a joke that implicated President Trump’s son, Barron.