President Trump knew in advance and approved of the plan for a contingent of Republican House members to disrupt the House impeachment inquiry Wednesday, according to Bloomberg News.
About two dozen lawmakers stormed the secure hearing room Wednesday morning, disrupting the closed-door testimony of a Pentagon official.
“If behind those doors they intend to overturn the result of an American presidential election, we want to know what’s going on,” Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., the ringleader of the protest, told reporters.
Chanting “Let us in! Let us in!,” the members of the conservative Freedom Caucus then entered a restricted area in the Sensitive Compartmented Information Facilities (SCIF), where the interviews with witnesses have been conducted. Some appeared to carry cellphones into the room in violation of security protocols.
The chaotic scene unfolded one day after William Taylor, the senior U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, delivered damning testimony detailing how the president had linked the release of U.S. military aid to Ukraine to public assurances that President Volodymyr Zelensky would launch an investigation into one of Trump’s political rivals, former Vice President Joe Biden.
The disruption Wednesday halted testimony from Laura Cooper, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia. The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., ordered Capitol Police to remove the intruders, after which a security sweep of the facility was required.
In a statement released Wednesday afternoon, Gaetz denied he had coordinated the protest with the White House.
“I organized and led this press conference, including entering the committee room,” Gaetz said in a tweet. “I never discussed this with any White House official including the President.”
While a key administration talking point has been that the Democrats are conducting their impeachment inquiry in secret, Republicans sit on all three of the committees involved in the investigation and have attended each of the sessions.
When Republicans controlled the House, they conducted closed-door interviews with witnesses in their three-year investigation into the terror attack that killed four Americans in Benghazi, Libya.
“I can get more information in a five-hour deposition than I can in five minutes of listening to a colleague ask questions in committee hearings,” then-Rep. Trey Gowdy, who led the Benghazi hearings, explained.
Schiff has said that Democrats plan to release the transcripts of the interviews they have conducted at the conclusion of this stage of the inquiry. While the specifics of the testimony are not known, the opening statements by some witnesses that have been released to the press and accounts by Democrats on the committee have begun to corroborate the view that Trump pursued a quid pro quo arrangement with Ukraine’s government.
“You had a number of Republican members, who were not on the committees of jurisdiction, try to go into the SCIF area. They also brought their cellphones, which is a violation. They violated House rules by trying to crash committees which they don’t sit on,” Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., told reporters. “All of this is an attack right on the investigation.”
Schiff, the target of Trump and his GOP supporters, told NBC News that the president’s supporters in Congress mounted their protest, which resulted in a five-hour delay, because they sense that the inquiry is not trending in Trump’s favor.
“Clearly the White House was devastated by yesterday’s testimony, and these witnesses have been willing to defy the admin and follow the law and come testify,” Schiff said, “so the president’s allies are trying to stop them through other means, but they won’t be successful.”
The invasion by the squad, consisting overwhelmingly of white men in dark suits, recalled the infamous “Brooks Brothers Riot” of November 2000, in which Republican functionaries stormed an office in Miami to stop a manual recount of presidential ballots, helping to ensure the election of George W. Bush.
Trump has labeled the inquiry a “coup” attempt, a “witch hunt” and a “lynching,” and many of the Republicans who participated in Wednesday’s disruption have echoed him, blasting Democrats for conducting their questioning away from television cameras.
Such complaints are not uncommon in Washington. In 2017, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell offered a now-infamous rejoinder to Democrats who protested that Republicans had passed a sweeping tax reform bill in the middle of the night that included provisions they were not allowed to read.
“You complain about process when you’re losing,” McConnell said.
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