(CNN) — On Wednesday morning, the House Judiciary Committee convened its first hearing in the impeachment investigation into President Donald Trump — bringing in four constitutional lawyers to debate what, exactly, constitutes “high crimes and misdemeanors” and whether the President had committed any of those acts.
In the hearing, Chairman Jerry Nadler, a New York Democrat, said Trump had obstructed justice during both Mueller’s two-year investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 US election and the House’s impeachment inquiry, which is focused on Trump’s alleged abuse of power in pressuring Ukraine to politically damage Democrats.
In his opening statement Wednesday, Nadler said Trump’s latest actions showed a “pattern of conduct” seen since his first year in office.
“When his own Department of Justice tried to uncover the extent to which a foreign government had broken our laws, President Trump took extraordinary and unprecedented steps to obstruct the investigation, including ignoring subpoenas, ordering the creation of false records, and publicly attacking and intimidating witnesses,” said Nadler. “Then, as now, this administration’s level of obstruction is without precedent.”
The remarks appeared to reopen a debate simmering within the Democratic Party since the release of Mueller’s 448-page report in April: Were the President’s actions impeachable?
Mueller found that Trump did not illegally conspire with Russia to interfere in the 2016 election, even as Trump and members of his campaign appeared to have sought its interference. Mueller also declined to say whether Trump had illegally obstructed justice, citing the Justice Department’s position that sitting presidents cannot be indicted.
But Mueller did lay out several examples of potential obstruction, including Trump ordering then-White House counsel Don McGahn to fire Mueller and pushing then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to reverse his decision recusing himself from overseeing the inquiry in order to curtail it (both officials refused).
While many liberal Democrats in the House had pushed then for impeachment, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sided with her members in tough races, who were wary of charging the President with obstructing an investigation that did not find an underlying crime. Polls showed that support for starting impeachment proceedings was well under 50%.
But on July 25, a day after Mueller testified before Congress, Trump appears to have pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on a phone call to announce an investigation into Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, whose son Hunter had worked for a Ukrainian energy company. (There’s no evidence of wrongdoing by either Biden.) The impeachment inquiry began with Pelosi’s support in September, once the House had received a complaint from a whistleblower who learned of the call and charged that Trump had used “the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 US election.” Polls show that a majority of the country supports the impeachment proceedings.
As Democrats swiftly pursued the investigation into allegations surrounding Trump and Ukraine, they’ve privately debated whether the obstruction of justice documented by Mueller should be included in articles of impeachment, as some Democrats have pushed for broadening them beyond Ukraine.
Democrats listed three “impeachable offenses” at Wednesday’s hearing: abuse of power and bribery, obstruction of justice and obstruction of Congress. But how they will write the articles still remains to be seen. If Democrats extend the obstruction article to include actions described in the Mueller report, some members could be tempted to vote against it.
Democratic Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York told CNN that “no decisions have been made one way or the other” regarding whether the Mueller report will be included in the articles.
Some Democrats still hope that it will be.
“We did a lot of work in the House Judiciary Committee,” Democratic Rep. Veronica Escobar of Texas told CNN. “Mueller’s report, I think, was pretty clear and damning on that front.”
Reps. Ted Deutch of Florida and Pramila Jayapal of Washington — two other members of the Judiciary Committee — said the “pattern” of obstruction could make it more compelling.
Jayapal told CNN, “To me, you could make a case for bringing in some of the Mueller report because this is a pattern.”
“What we’re seeing in Ukraine is the same pattern as what we saw with the Mueller report,” she said. “And so, if it’s the same pattern, it might make sense.”
Other Democrats are unsure what to do.
Rep. Karen Bass of California told CNN she’s “concerned” about the episodes of alleged obstruction but is “way more concerned about the President attempting to throw the next election.”
“The question is with this President — there’s so much,” she said.
Now, the committee has 24 hours to decide if it will hold another hearing next week.