Roughly two-dozen House Republicans on Wednesday stormed a closed-door deposition in secure House Intelligence Committee spaces to rail against the Democratic-led impeachment inquiry, a political stunt ratcheting up the GOP complaints about the process that delayed Wednesday’s scheduled deposition for five hours.
The conservative lawmakers, led by Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, barged into the deposition and demanded they be allowed to see the closed-door proceedings where members of three committees planned to interview Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary Laura Cooper as part of the impeachment probe into President Donald Trump.
The chaotic scene, with Republicans flouting House rules to make a political point, represented a new and more confrontational phase of the Republican attack on House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff and the Democratic impeachment investigation.
By early afternoon, pizza and snacks were being brought into the committee area. The Republicans in the committee SCIF — short for a sensitive compartmented information facility – left around 2 p.m. ET to attend House votes, apparently ending the protest.
The deposition then began around 3 p.m. ET, lawmakers said, a roughly five-hour delay, and lasted less than four hours before Cooper left the Capitol.
Once Cooper’s testimony began, she provided a very technical readout of how foreign aid is disbursed, according to lawmakers. Several lawmakers say her testimony helped show that the Ukraine aid deviated from that normal process. Cooper, who was issued a subpoena in the same manner as State Department officials who have testified, did not give an opening statement, lawmakers said.
A chaotic scene in a secure room
The real fireworks happened before she started speaking.
A source in the room said that as Cooper was sitting down to testify, the Republicans stormed through the room’s three different doors. Rep. Bradley Byrne of Alabama was yelling at Schiff, but the California Democrat did not engage, the source said. Other Democrats, including Rep. Val Demings of Florida, shouted back at both Byrne and Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas, who were yelling about the process.
Demings, according to one source in the room, asked Republicans if they were trying to teach their children “that it’s OK to lie, steal and cheat so long as you don’t get caught?”
“Don’t you have any work to do today?” she said to one Republican member, according to the source.
Cooper left the room while the Republicans refused to vacate the space. The source said the Capitol Police and sergeant at arms were consulted when members refused to leave the room.
“It was closest thing I’ve seen around here to mass civil unrest as a member of Congress,” said one source in the room.
White House met with Republicans on Tuesday
The Republicans even walked into the hearing room with their electronics, according to Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly of Virginia, which is prohibited in the space, a secure room used for discussing and handling classified information. GOP Rep. Mike Conaway of Texas, who is on the House Intelligence Committee, collected the electronics.
“All of us put our electronics in boxes outside,” Connolly said. “That SCIF is used by Congress for lots of highly classified purposes. To compromise that to make a point, is deeply troubling.”
A committee official described it as a “major security breach,” and Schiff told reporters later Wednesday he was concerned about the integrity of the SCIF, though he did not elaborate.
“The President’s allies in Congress are trying to make it even more difficult for these witnesses to cooperate but we’re grateful that the witness is a real professional and has come forward, notwithstanding the obstacles,” Schiff said.
Among the Republicans participating in the protest was Minority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the No. 2 House Republican. Gaetz and Scalise both suggested they might return at some point to protest further, though they did not do so Wednesday.
The storm-the-room stunt came two days after Trump said that he thought Republicans “have to get tougher and fight.” Many of the Republicans engaged in the protest were at a White House on Tuesday meeting with Trump, and a person familiar with the matter told CNN that Trump had advance knowledge of the plans to enter the space.
GOP Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina and House Freedom Caucus Chairman Andy Biggs, however, said Wednesday’s protest was not raised at the meeting with Trump.
The press conference that preceded the sit-in had been in the works for a week, according to one Republican lawmaker, who said they had anticipated beforehand that the event would be a traditional press conference and didn’t realize until the event began that the group would push into the secure area.