Joan E Greve
A group of Republican members of the House of Representatives, chanting “Let us in”, barged into a secure office suite in the bowels of the US capitol where Laura Cooper, a top Pentagon official who oversees Ukraine policy, was preparing to testify.
The chaos and confusion temporarily shut down the proceedings before the three House committees leading the impeachment inquiry as Republicans tweeted updates of the disruption from their cellphones, which are not typically permitted in classified areas. Their presence in the chamber reportedly erupted into yelling matches with committee members.
“BREAKING: I led over 30 of my colleagues into the SCIF where Adam Schiff is holding secret impeachment depositions. Still inside – more details to come,” tweeted Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican congressman and one of Donald Trump’s closest allies on Capitol Hill, referring to secured areas of the Capitol known as Sensitive Compartmented Information Facilities, or SCIFs, and Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the House intelligence committee leading the Trump-Ukraine impeachment inquiry.
The Republicans who led the protest do not sit on the committees involved in the impeachment inquiry – Intelligence, Oversight and Reform, and Foreign Affairs – and are not permitted to attend. Members of those committees already include Republican members of Congress, as well as Democrats, and both parties attend and ask questions at the hearings, whether public or, as in this case, closed to the public and the press.
But the members who staged protest on Wednesday have sought to attack the inquiry on procedural grounds, objecting to the private nature of the hearings and demanding access to the full breadth of the testimony that has rattled Washington in recent weeks.
Much of the testimony that has been made public, however, and news reports confirm key elements of a whistleblower complaint that set in motion the impeachment inquiry. The investigation centers on reports of Donald Trump withholding military aid and dangling a meeting at the White House for Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, in return for favors that would benefit him in domestic US politics.
“Reporting from Adam Schiff’s secret chamber,” Republican congressman Andy Biggs began, in a series of tweets from inside the room. Biggs has accused Democrats of conducting a “Soviet-style” impeachment inquiry and demanded the testimony be made available to all lawmakers.
“When Republican members were in the SCIF, Chairman Schiff immediately left with the witness,” he tweeted. Biggs later clarified that he had “transmitted” to aides for publication, as the use of electronic devices in the secure area violates security protocols.
More than five hours after the standoff began, committee members were recalled to the room and Cooper’s deposition began.
Democrats were furious and, suggested the timing – days after Trump called on Republicans to “get tougher and fight” the impeachment inquiry amid mounting evidence of misconduct – was no coincidence.
“This is a stunt that corresponded very specifically to the president’s complaint that they weren’t fighting hard enough for him, and in direct response to devastating testimony yesterday from Ambassador Taylor,” Democratic congressman David Cicilline, a member of the House foreign affairs committee, said. “Republicans are playing to an audience of one, and the president’s proud of them, but we’re going to continue to do all the work.”
It was unclear if Republicans would attempt to disrupt future hearings.
“Their frustration was boiling over,” said Republican congressman Lee Zeldin, also on the foreign affairs committee, one of the three panels leading the inquiry. “I would imagine things would get worse not better if the process doesn’t improve.”
The dramatic escalation by Republicans on Capitol Hill came after Bill Taylor, the most senior US diplomat in Kyiv, testified for hours before House investigators on Tuesday, delivering an account that was so shocking to some lawmakers freshman Democrat Andy Levin described it as “my most disturbing day in Congress so far – very troubling”.
In a lengthy opening statement, Taylor said Trump wanted “everything”, including military aid to Ukraine, tied to a commitment by Ukrainian leaders to investigate Democrats and the 2016 election plus a company linked to the family of Trump’s leading 2020 Democratic rival, Joe Biden.
Taylor said Trump “wanted President Zelenskiy ‘in a public box’ by making a public statement about ordering such investigations”.
Trump emerged briefly on Wednesday to declare victory in enforcing what he called a “permanent” ceasefire along the northern Syrian border, after his abrupt withdrawal of US troops effectively opened the door for a Turkish offensive against Kurdish-led forces in that region, leaving scores of civilians and fighters dead and hundreds of thousands of people displaced.
Trump, who has denied wrongdoing in the impeachment inquiry, spent the morning on Twitter downplaying the investigation’s findings, including Taylor’s explosive testimony. He did not address the impeachment issues or take any questions after delivering his statement on Syria.
Later, leaving the White House for Pittsburgh to speak at a fracking conference, Trump was unusually quiet when heading to the Marine One helicopter on the lawn.
Meanwhile a report emerged noting that as early as 7 May the newly elected Zelenskiy told senior aides he was already worried about pressure from Trump to investigate his Democratic rivals.
Zelenskiy’s group of advisers spent most of a three-hour meeting talking about how to navigate the insistence from Trump and his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, for such an investigation, and how to avoid becoming entangled in the American elections, according to three people familiar with the details of the meeting.
Among the many defenses the White House has offered is that Ukraine had not been aware that Trump was withholding military aid that Congress approved unless it launched two investigations.
The Associated Press contributed to this report