One year after the Capitol riot: Aaron Hiller ’03 of the House Judiciary Committee on the story behind the Trump impeachment trials
Written by Laurelle Maubert ’25, Scholar Media Team member
As a veteran staff member of the U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary, Aaron Hiller ’03 has worked directly on some of the country’s most pressing political issues. In fall 2019, Aaron joined a team to tackle one of the most historic legal matters of our time: the impeachment trials of former president Donald Trump.
The movement towards impeachment began two-and-a-half years earlier, according to Aaron, who served as deputy chief counsel of the committee. Democratic congress members felt the institutions of our democracy were under threat, especially as the minority party of the U.S. House of Representatives during the first half of the Trump administration.
After taking back the House in 2018, the initial phases focused on the Mueller investigation and its discoveries. Also disturbing to Democrats was the content of the president’s infamous Twitter feed, Aaron said.
“In the middle of the night, the president would be tweeting, threatening to fire the attorney general for not doing things his way during active and ongoing criminal investigations,” Aaron recalled. “That’s unprecedented in American history.”
As the calls for impeachment began to grow among many progressive Democrats, a group of mostly moderate members voiced concerns with moving forward with the effort. The Trump-Ukraine scandal, however, proved to be a turning point, according to the alumnus. The caucus unified and the first impeachment trial efforts began.
“There’s a thread running through all of these things,” Aaron said. “We’d elected a president who did not respect or appreciate the democratic institutions that make up our republic.”
In collaboration with a dedicated team of experts, Aaron helped write a 55-page report that sought to establish constitutional grounds for impeachment.
The alumnus worked with Congress members, committee staff, and outside experts, ranging from attorneys to authors. The group produced several more reports, both short and long, conducted in-depth investigations, and crafted litigation to make their case.
Although the work culminated in the House voting to convict in December 2019, the Senate acquitted the president less than two months later.
The mob that sparked a second impeachment trial
Close to a year after Trump’s acquittal, the world watched live on television as a mob invaded the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. Aaron watched the National Guard deploy from his front yard, just four blocks away from the Capitol campus.
“As the hours passed, legislators did what they tend to do, particularly without ‘adult supervision’ from their staff: they started drafting legislation,” he said.
Recognizing an opportunity, the House Judiciary Committee volunteered to review the early drafts. Aaron said the team were pitched a wide variety of ideas, from “vague resolutions” condemning violence to proposed measures to expel any member of Congress who was involved with the riot. One more memorable anecdote was a Congress member who wrote his thoughts down on a paper towel with Magic Marker because that was all he had access to during the day’s lockdown.
In addition to legal writing, Aaron received communications from U.S. Representatives Jamie Raskin of Maryland, Ted Lieu of California, and David Cicilline of Rhode Island. The three had huddled together during the January 6 attacks.
“It was a single article of impeachment [about] inciting this riot,” he said. “It wasn’t phrased quite right; it wasn’t framed quite correctly, but it seemed right.”
Aaron called his boss, committee chairman and congressman Jerry Nadler, a key member in the first impeachment. Alerting him to the efforts under way, Aaron asked Nadler for permission to pursue “the right idea.” He received the green light and began to assemble a team.
Recounting the monumental team effort, Aaron described his colleagues for the second impeachment as “the smallest, smartest law firm in the world” that existed for six weeks. The group refined the congress members’ draft and returned it to them. Within 48 hours, more than 200 other members had signed on.
As history knows, despite extraordinary human effort, the second impeachment trial saw the same result, ending with the House voting to convict and the Senate voting to acquit.
Despite the double loss, Aaron said he walked away with a sense of purpose and tremendous pride.
“One place we can find some measure of satisfaction is knowing that the story doesn’t end with those acquittal votes,” said Aaron, who was promoted to chief counsel and deputy staff director in November 2021. “The members who voted to acquit the president will be held to account; the members who voted to convict the president will also be judged by the voters. The conversation is going to go on. The story is far from over, and I’m very proud of the work we did.”
The chaos surrounding Trump’s presidency notwithstanding, Aaron said he hopes America can learn from the experience.
“The most important lesson of the Trump administration is [realizing] we built a system that, in large part, relies on the honor code,” he said, pointing to the lack of explicit legal language that prohibits foreign emolument, ensures the political independence of the U.S. Department of Justice from the White House, and prevents the president from putting “his thumb on the scale” of any particular case.
“We didn’t write those things down because we expected that our leaders would be people of good character,” the counsel said.
Although the days of the Trump administration and both impeachments are behind us, Aaron noted that the damage to our institutions still lingers and that there is still repairing to do. Beginning with Congress, the courts, and the Biden administration, Aaron said restructuring the government will require “everybody to give up a little bit of power in order to set the system right again.”
“It’s a project that is never going to end, but one I think I’ll be working on for a while,” he said. “I’m happy here.”
More about the author
Laurelle Maubert ’25 of Frederick, Maryland, covers the alumni beat for the Morehead-Cain Scholar Media Team, with a focus on law and politics.
The first-year scholar graduated in spring 2021 from Saint James School in Hagerstown. In high school, she served as the policy coordinator for March For Our Lives Maryland, where she led the organization in advocating for gun reform and legislation. In 2020, she participated in the Democracy Summer Fellowship for Congressman Jamie Raskin, learning about political organizing and campaigning.
Laurelle plans to pursue a major in Business and minors in French and philosophy, politics, and economics at Carolina.
- Aaron Hiller