WASHINGTON (AP) — Republicans briefly brought the Democrat-led impeachment investigation to a halt Wednesday when around two dozen GOP House members stormed into a closed-door deposition with a Defense Department official. Democrats said the move compromised national security because some of the Republicans brought electronic devices into a secure room.
The GOP maneuver delayed a deposition with Laura Cooper, a senior Defense Department official who oversees Ukraine policy, until midafternoon. The interview began roughly five hours behind schedule, after a security check by Capitol officials.
As a series of diplomats have been interviewed in the probe, several of them detailing President Donald Trump’s efforts to persuade Ukraine to investigate a political rival, many Republicans have been silent on the president’s behavior. But they have been outspoken about their disdain for Democrats and the impeachment process, saying it is unfair even though they have been in the room questioning witnesses and hearing the testimony.
“The members have just had it, and they want to be able to see and represent their constituents and find out what’s going on,” said Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, the top Republican on the House Oversight and Reform panel. That committee is one of three leading the investigation, and its members are allowed into the closed-door hearings.
Cooper was answering questions from lawmakers and staffers in response to a subpoena, an official working on the impeachment inquiry said. She was explaining to lawmakers the process of distributing military aid and being asked whether the appropriate steps were followed on Ukraine, according to a person familiar with the interview.
Both the official working on the impeachment inquiry and the person familiar with the interview spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the closed-door testimony.
Democrats deny that Republicans are being treated unfairly, noting they have had equal time to question witnesses and full access to the meetings. But they said the lawmakers — several of whom do not sit on one of the three committees — compromised security at the closed-door deposition. The interviews are being held in what is called a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, or SCIF, which is a secure room where members can hear classified information.
Several lawmakers leaving the facility said that some of the Republicans brought their cellphones, even though electronics are not allowed. All members of Congress are familiar with the protocol of the SCIF, since they are often invited to classified briefings, and there are several such rooms around the Capitol.
Lawmakers described a chaotic scene. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., said she had just walked into the room when the Republican lawmakers blew past Capitol police officers and Democratic staffers. The staff member who was checking identification at the entrance was “basically overcome” by the Republicans, she said.
“Literally some of them were just screaming about the president and what we’re doing to him and that we have nothing and just all things that were supportive of the president,” Wasserman Schultz said.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., criticized his Republican colleagues for the tactic, calling them “nuts” to make a “run on the SCIF.”
“That’s not the way to do it,” he said. Graham later tweeted that he initially believed Republicans had taken the room by force and that it was actually a “peaceful protest,” adding his House GOP colleagues had “good reason to be upset.”
The Republicans decried that the deposition was happening behind closed doors and said Americans should be able to read the transcripts of any interviews being conducted as part of impeachment.
Rep. Steve Scalise, the No. 2 House Republican, said Democrats are running a “Soviet-style process” that should “not be allowed in the United States of America.”
“We’re not going to be bullied,” he said.
Democrats have promised to release the transcripts when it will not affect their investigation, and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff has pushed back on the criticism of the depositions.
Schiff said in a letter to colleagues last week that “the majority and minority have been provided equal staff representation and time to question witnesses, who have stayed until the majority and the minority have asked all of their questions — often late into the evening.”
Several Republicans appeared to be tweeting from the secure room. North Carolina Rep. Mark Walker tweeted: “UPDATE: We are in the SCIF and every GOP Member is quietly listening.”
Arizona Rep. Andy Biggs retweeted some of his colleagues but followed up with a clarification: “All tweets sent out when I’m in the SCIF are being transmitted to staff for publication,” he wrote. Georgia Rep. Buddy Carter wrote that he and his Republican colleagues “just stormed the impeachment hearing room and finally got in,” but he specified in a video accompanying the tweet that he was no longer inside.
Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, alleged that Republicans “intentionally brought their electronic devices” into the secure area, violating congressional rules and the oath they take to gain access to classified information.
The “unprecedented breach of security raises serious concerns” for committee chairs who maintain secure facilities in the Capitol, Thompson wrote in a letter to the House sergeant at arms asking for action to be taken against members of Congress involved in the breach.
The standoff came the day after a top US diplomat testified that he was told Trump withheld military aid to Ukraine until the country’s president went public with a promise to investigate Democrats. Democratic Rep. Ted Lieu of California said Republicans did not want to hear from Cooper because they were “freaked out” by what William Taylor told lawmakers.
“They know more facts are going to be delivered that are absolutely damning to the president of the United States,” Lieu said.