WASHINGTON ― In the latest attempts to make a circus out of the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation into President Donald Trump’s dealings with the Ukrainian government, a contingent of House Republicans stormed a secure room in the Capitol basement Wednesday, disrupting a deposition and violating House rules by bringing their phones into a secure area.
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), whose chief of staff sent an email to Republican legislators’ offices last week about holding a press conference outside the guarded committee room, led the group of roughly 30 lawmakers into the Intelligence Committee’s secure area. And because the Republicans, who are not members of the committee, brought phones and other electronics into the Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF), Democrats said the room would now have to be “sanitized.”
“They not only brought in their unauthorized bodies, they may have brought in the Russians and the Chinese,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), a member of the Intelligence Committee.
Swalwell added that some Republican members held onto their phones even after the Sergeant at Arms asked that they remove them from the area. Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) later reported that he personally collected phones from Republicans and took them out of the SCIF.
The storming of the committee room came as the Intelligence Committee was set to interview Laura Cooper, a Pentagon employee who oversaw Ukrainian issues. Cooper was in the room as Republicans barged through the door, and committee staff moved her into another area. Republicans have complained for weeks that the committee isn’t allowing non-members to sit in on proceedings or review transcripts, and they say there needs to be transparency with the whole process. Several Republicans who stormed the room already had legitimate access to the depositions.
Democrats argue that, while investigating Trump’s efforts to get the Ukrainian president to dig up dirt on former Vice President Joe Biden, it’s imperative that witnesses not have the ability to coordinate stories. They also say that the testimony will eventually be made public, and there will also be public proceedings.
Republicans have obsessed over the process Democrats are following, saying it’s too secretive and unfair to the president.
“It’s finally reached a boiling point where members just said they are so frustrated at the idea that they can’t be a part of this and see what’s going on,” Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) said Wednesday.
Jordan did acknowledge that the Republicans shouldn’t have brought phones into the SCIF.
“They’re not used to this,” he said. “They walked in, soon as they were told that, they sent their phones out. It was a mistake, so no big deal.”
But Democrats see the whole ordeal as a much bigger issue.
For one, they believe Republicans taking over the committee room Wednesday was an attempt to intimidate Cooper and other witnesses. They also think Republicans are trying to hold up the proceedings and make a mockery of the investigation.
“The tactics are an effort to delay the inevitable,” Swalwell said. “They are a response to just damaging and pulverizing testimony yesterday from a courageous ambassador in Bill Taylor.”
Taylor testified Tuesday that Trump did indeed solicit a quid pro quo from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Taylor documented that a White House meeting between Zelensky and Trump was “connected” to Zelensky opening an investigation into the Ukrainian energy company upon whose board Hunter Biden sat, and an additional investigation into alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election.
While Jordan said he wasn’t allowed to discuss other depositions, he claimed that the additional context of other people’s statements indicated that Taylor had not really shown that there was a quid pro quo.
Jordan noted that Zelensky “didn’t go out and make a statement” about investigating the Bidens, as Trump allegedly wanted. But that may be because Taylor himself repeatedly asked a member of Zelensky’s cabinet to confirm there would be no announcement after one had reportedly been scheduled.
“That’s my point,” Jordan said. “He didn’t make a statement.”
Meadows, for his part, toed a similar line. He said previous witnesses had contradicted Taylor’s claims of a quid pro quo, and that Taylor contradicted himself later in his testimony.
“I think what he said was, is that he was told ― or that he believed that ― but he had no first hand knowledge,” Meadows said.
Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.) also said Taylor’s testimony had been contradicted by earlier statements from Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, who said there had been “no quid pro quo.” But both Sondland and Taylor’s testimony indicated that Sondland was merely repeating what the president had told him.
Moreover, Democrats have been resolute in saying that there doesn’t need to be a quid pro quo for there to have been an impeachable act. President Trump merely using his office to pressure a foreign country into dredging up dirt on a political opponent is enough. With each passing day, however, every statement from the president’s chief of staff, material witnesses and even the president himself certainly seems to indicate that there was a quid pro quo and that Trump wholly abused his office.
Republicans continue to ignore those damning allegations, instead focusing on the process playing out in the Intelligence Committee room. But their efforts to make the investigation a circus may only backfire on themselves.
The hostile takeover of the committee room, which was endorsed by GOP leadership ― the chamber’s No. 2 Republican, Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), even participated in the charade ― is the latest in a string of attempts to distract from the actual Ukraine scandal. Republicans are trying to get voters to dig into their familiar partisan foxholes and disregard any new information.
But storming through the “Restricted Area” doors of the SCIF, bringing their phones, occupying the committee room for hours — even ordering pizza ― are all charades that unbiased voters should see through.
Gaetz, who is leading the efforts, was already kicked out of the committee room when he tried a similar stunt by himself weeks ago. Now he’s enlisting more and more Republicans to join his performative defense of the president.
In a “look-at-me” move that’s almost too on the nose, Gaetz also broke House rules Wednesday when his staff handed out expired congressional passes to some uncredentialed reporters and the crew of HBO’s “The Swamp.” The show is following Gaetz’s efforts to combat the impeachment process, and his office gave about 10 crew members and reporters expired passes to another room in the Capitol, according to a GOP staffer familiar with the situation. There is a formal process for credentialing members of the congressional press corps, and those reporters and crew members were kicked out of the Capitol by police.
“I don’t manage the press passes for camera crews,” Gaetz said when asked if his SCIF stunt had followed the rules regarding phones and press credentials. “So I don’t really think I’m in position to answer that question.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story reported that Gaetz’s chief of staff emailed Republican offices about entering the SCIF, but the email only said they would hold a press conference outside.