Impeachment deposition delayed after Republicans storm proceedings

By Andrew Desiderio and Melanie Zanona

Dozens of House Republicans on Wednesday stormed the secure facility inside the Capitol where impeachment investigators have been deposing witnesses, forcing a delay to the proceedings on the heels of damning new revelations that could further imperil President Donald Trump.

GOP lawmakers who do not sit on the three committees leading the inquiry refused to leave the Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility in the basement of the Capitol, prompting a standoff with Democrats that led the House sergeant-at-arms to intervene.

After a five-hour stalemate, the Republicans left and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Laura Cooper began her testimony behind closed doors.

According to people familiar with the matter, some Republican lawmakers brought their cellphones into the secure area — a significant violation of House rules. Another person said the room had to be fully swept for potential security breaches, and Democrats said the Republicans compromised national security by bringing electronics into a secure area.

An official working on the impeachment inquiry said some GOP lawmakers “refused to completely remove” their devices even after being reprimanded by security personnel and the House sergeant-at-arms, adding the House parliamentarian concluded the GOP lawmakers who stormed the facility violated House deposition rules.

Republicans said House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) was threatening them with ethics violations. Schiff was also consulting with the House sergeant-at-arms.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy appeared to excuse the lawmakers who brought their cellphones into the secure area, telling Politico: “These are individuals who have never been in Intel Committee before or anywhere else. So it’s nothing serious from that matter.”

Democrats describing the scene were visibly frustrated and vowed that the Republican effort would not throw their impeachment inquiry off course. They said the stunt showed Republicans are reeling from Tuesday’s testimony by William Taylor, the top American diplomat in Ukraine, who directly tied Trump to a quid pro quo with the Eastern European nation involving critical military aid.

“It’s completely inappropriate. When the facts are against you, the law is against you, the president clearly committed a crime, you’re left with arguing the process,” said Rep. Harley Rouda (D-Calif.), who witnessed the chaos unfold behind closed doors.

“It’s a bunch of Freedom Caucus members having pizza around a conference table pretending to be brave,” added Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), referring to the hard-line conservative group. “All they basically did here was to storm a castle that they already occupied.”

The GOP stunt, led by House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), comes Trump after demanded Republicans “get tough and fight” for him in the impeachment probe. But Republicans have struggled to defend Trump on the substance of the allegations and have instead focused on hammering Democrats over what they see as an illegitimate impeachment process.

The Republican effort came one day after Democrats secured some of their most explosive findings in the impeachment probe. Yet GOP lawmakers — at least for the first half of the day — successfully changed the conversation; instead of being pressed for reaction to Taylor’s testimony, they were fielding questions from reporters about the drama unfolding inside the secure facility.

Republicans knew they would be turned away from the closed-door deposition; only members who sit on the authorized committees are permitted to sit in on the sessions. Scores of Republicans who sit on the three panels leading the inquiry have been participating in the witness interviews.

Another person in the room said Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.) was “getting in the faces of and shouting at Democrats.”

“It was tense,” said Rep. Tim Burchett (R-Tenn.), who sits on the Foreign Affairs Committee.

Later Wednesday, House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) wrote a letter to the House sergeant-at-arms demanding that he “take action” against the GOP lawmakers who breached security inside the SCIF.

But the GOP has been girding for a showdown with Democrats over the inquiry, which they believe is being conducted unfairly. Democrats expressed frustration with the stunt on Wednesday, saying it put a scheduled deposition on hold.

“They basically ran over a member of the staff” to get in the room, said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.). “They just came into the room and started shouting about the president. Literally some of them were just screaming … saying that the process is wrong.”

One Republican who has been able to attend the proceedings, Rep. Chris Stewart of Utah, acknowledged that the closed-door nature of the impeachment proceedings are consistent with the House’s procedures.

“This may be within House rules. That’s not the question. The question is, is it a good idea to impeach the president in secret hearings?” Stewart said. “This may very well be within Chairman Schiff’s and Nancy Pelosi’s authority to do this. I think it’s a bad idea.”

Democrats leading the impeachment inquiry have been gathering evidence for the probe behind closed doors, asserting that secrecy is paramount in order to protect the integrity of the investigation. Republicans have said the depositions should be done in public.

Republicans also argue it is unfair that only members of the three committees spearheading the inquiry — Intelligence, Oversight and Foreign Affairs — are permitted to attend the closed-door interviews. GOP members of the House Armed Services Committee asserted it was their right to attend Cooper’s deposition because she works at the Pentagon, which falls under their committee’s jurisdiction.

“I represent nearly a million Floridians who are asking me my thoughts on this process, and yet I can’t relay to them anything except what’s being leaked to the media. It is really a travesty,” said Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.), a member of the Armed Services panel.

In reality, more than 45 House Republicans — nearly a quarter of the House GOP conference — already have full access to the depositions through their membership on one of the three panels leading the impeachment inquiry. During the depositions, Republican lawyers are given the same amount of time to question witnesses as Democratic counsels.

Later Wednesday, the Democratic chairs of the three committees sent a letter to the State Department demanding that it turn over documents “that are directly and highly relevant” to the impeachment probe.

Taylor told investigators during his deposition on Tuesday that he took notes to document his conversations, according to people who were in the room for his testimony. And Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union and a key figure in the scandal, has said he wants to turn over documents but is being blocked by the State Department.

Heather Caygle and Kyle Cheney contributed to this report.