Roughly two dozen House Republicans delayed a witness deposition in the ongoing impeachment inquiry on Wednesday, storming the secure hearing room and demanding to take part, raising security concerns about the sensitive space.
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Democrats halted the deposition and were consulting with the House Sergeant-at-Arms about proceedings, which have been limited to members of the three committees conducting the impeachment probe. A House Intelligence Committee official said the House office that provides guidance on rules and procedures had determined that the GOP tactic violated House deposition rules.
“The stunt, in service of the President’s demand that they “fight harder” to obstruct a legitimate impeachment inquiry, has meant that the witness has had to wait for hours for them to leave,” the official said.
“They engage in this circus-like behavior because they can’t defend the President’s egregious misconduct.”
The GOP group, led by Reps. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., staged a news conference denouncing the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry before entering the secure room known as a Secure Compartmented Information Facility, or SCIF, where Republicans and Democrats on relevant committees were preparing to question Laura Cooper, a senior Pentagon official with jurisdiction over Russian and Ukrainian policy.
Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., said Republicans “stormed” into the room with their cell phones – which are not allowed to be in the space considered to be the most secure in the Capitol. Some, including Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas, were shouting.
“The SCIF is used by Congress for lots of classified, highly classified purposes. To compromise that to make a point is deeply troubling,” Connolly said.
“Failing all else, like the merits of the case, trying to defend the president effectively, they have now decided on physical disruption as their fallback.”
GOP Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, a senior member of the Intelligence Committee, sensing a problem, began collecting cell phones from members, who are supposed to deposit them in a cabinet outside before entering the room, according to Connolly and others in the room.
The Republicans who forced their way into the room argued they should be able to question the witness even though they aren’t members of the committees conducting the impeachment inquiry.
“We are sitting members of Congress,” argued Rep. Michael Waltz, R-Fla., “With relevant jurisdiction over the witness.”
Forty-six House Republicans serve on the House Intelligence, Oversight and Foreign Affairs Committees leading the impeachment probe, or roughly 1-in-4 members of the House GOP caucus. Members of the Judiciary Committee, which handles impeachment proceedings, have argued that they should be allowed to take part in the inquiry – which Democrats have said is a precursor for more formal impeachment proceedings and open hearings.
Capitol Police swept the hearing room where Cooper was scheduled to testify after members brought their electronic devices into the secure facility, according to sources. It was not immediately clear when proceedings would restart. The Republicans left the secure room after several hours.
Cooper, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia, did not answer questions from reporters before going behind closed doors to appear in front of three separate House committees involved in the impeachment inquiry focusing in part on President Donald Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zekenskiy.
The eighth witness to appear for depositions with of the House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs, and Oversight and Reform committees.
Cooper was expected to be asked to give details about the Trump administration’s withholding of nearly $400 million in military assistance to Ukraine this summer.
Cooper’s testimony comes one day after the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, Ambassador William Taylor, told members of Congress during a closed-door deposition that he believed the Trump administration decided to withhold aid to Ukraine until the country’s government agreed to begin an investigation into 2016 election interference and business matters connected to former Vice President Joe Biden’s family. One Democrat, Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass, called the testimony a “sea change” in the impeachment inquiry.
“By mid-July, it was becoming clear to me that the meeting President Zelenskyy wanted was conditioned on the investigation of Burisma and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections. It was also clear that this condition was driven by the irregular channel I had come to understand was guided by Mr. Giuliani,” Taylor told Congress, according to his opening statement obtained by ABC News.