House Republicans took their impeachment grievances to a more confrontational level on Wednesday, barging into a secure facility during a closed-door witness deposition and refusing to leave until Democrats held open hearings.
The gambit—cooked up by the pro-Trump brawler Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) and endorsed by House GOP leadership—derailed the closed-door deposition of Laura Cooper, a Pentagon official with jurisdiction over Ukraine policy, before it even started. And it left Democrats indignant that their colleagues had violated long standing rules about interviewing witnesses in classified settings.
Cell phones, for example, are not allowed in Sensitive Compartmented Information Facilities (also known as SCIFs). But the Republican members who barged into those facilities had taken their phones with them inside the room. Lawmakers and aides said that, as of noon on Wednesday, the SCIF was being swept for electronic surveillance devices because the Republicans brought in their phones, delaying the start of Cooper’s deposition. Democrats were also contemplating whether to bring in the U.S. Capitol Police in order to drag out the protesting members.
The standoff began shortly after a press conference in the morning, in which GOP members denounced what they called Democrats' "sham" impeachment process—a complaint that they’ve made central to their impeachment pushback.
In a scheme that drew parallels to the infamous Brooks Brother riots that upended the 2000 Florida recount, Gaetz led about 25 House Republican lawmakers into the secure basement SCIF, where bipartisan members of the three committees leading the impeachment inquiry—and only members of those three committees—are allowed to go during the impeachment investigation.
According to Democratic lawmakers in the room, the Republicans blew past police officers to enter the room and began shouting once they got there, loudly denouncing the process and impeachment in general.
Close to two hours after they first went in, a core group of Republicans remained there, according to a tweet from Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ). The number two House Republican, Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA), was with them. Three hours into the standoff, the Republican crew remained—and they had ordered pizza from We The Pizza, a Capital Hill joint.
“They’re a bunch of brave freedom fighters having pizza in a secure conference room,” complained Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-NJ).
At one point, a GOP member appeared to broadcast his thoughts from the SCIF via Twitter.
A House aide on the Intelligence committee decried the events as a "stunt, in service of the President’s demand that they 'fight harder' to obstruct a legitimate impeachment inquiry." The aide said that the House Parliamentarian had ruled that these members are in violation of House deposition rules.
Gaetz said that the idea to storm the SCIF was not Trump's. But in recent days, allies of the president have grown more notably agitated that congressional Republicans were not doing enough to effectively counter program the impeachment proceedings.
The White House, likewise, did not comment. Several outlets, however, reported that President Trump was aware of that the members were going to stage their protest. And several of the protesting members did visit the White House the day before to discuss impeachment proceedings.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s (R-CA) office confirmed that they were given a heads up and a a spokesman offered a statement in support of the SCIF storming.
“Each member of Congress represents nearly 710,000 Americans,” said Matt Sparks. “It is their duty and responsibility to see and understand all of the documents that Democrats are referring to in their attempt to remove a duly elected President from office. The current structure is unprecedented, unfair, and undemocratic. Our members are demanding fairness.”
According to Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), Cooper had not yet begun her testimony when the Republicans came in. “Literally, some of them were just screaming about the president and what we’re doing to him,” she told reporters.
A spokesperson for the House Intelligence Committee declined to comment on what exactly is happening in the SCIF. But a prior Gaetz ploy to enter the secure facility during an impeachment hearing ended with him being kicked out after a House parliamentarian ruled that he had no standing to be there.
House Republicans have held—and even supported—the use of closed door hearings for past congressional investigations, including the select committee that they spearheaded to investigate the 2011 consulate attack in Benghazi. That larger inconsistency and the timing on Wednesday’s gambit struck some Democrats as telling about the direction that the impeachment proceeding is heading.
“When you don't have the law or the facts, you attack and disrupt the process,” said Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA). “And you may wonder why is it happening now? Because Bill Taylor gave a devastating opening statement yesterday. They're freaked out. They're trying to stop this investigation.”