Republicans Stall Impeachment Testimony, Try to Access Secure Room in Demand for Transparency

A dramatic scene unfolded Wednesday when dozens of House Republicans halted the testimony of an administration official who was testifying behind closed doors as part of the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump after storming a secure room in a bid for greater transparency.

Led by Reps. Steve Scalise (R-LA)—the House minority whip—and Matt Gaetz (R-FL), dozens of GOP members entered a classified area of the Capitol building where the testimony of Laura Cooper, a top Pentagon official who oversees U.S. policy for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, was taking place.

Only members of the House Intelligence, Oversight and Foreign Affairs Committees—the panels spearheading the inquiry—are allowed to attend the closed-door proceedings being held in what's known as a SCIF: sensitive compartmented information facility. That means nearly 50 GOP members—or roughly one-fourth of House Republicans—have the ability to be present. Some can also question the witnesses.

But throughout the impeachment investigation that's featured private testimony from high-level current and former administration officials, Republicans have criticized Democrats for the secrecy of the process and called for greater transparency and to witness depositions and transcripts. Defending Trump against specific allegations of the Ukraine scandal has not, however, been as popular among Republicans.

Wednesday's attempt by unauthorized Republicans to enter the SCIF and hear a witness' testimony was the second time since last week and came after Trump scolded GOP lawmakers to "get tougher and fight" the Democrats' impeachment inquiry.

The move led to a partisan standoff that delayed Cooper's testimony for about 5 hours. Democrats chalked it up to a political stunt while Republicans indicated they were at their whit's end with witnesses testifying out of the public sphere.

At one point, GOP lawmakers ordered more than a dozen boxes of Domino's Pizza for reporters and We, The Pizza for themselves, which they apparently ate while they occupied the SCIF.

republicans halt impeachment testimony
House Republicans gather to speak at a press conference organized by Rep. Matt Gaetz, (R-FL), on Capitol Hill on October 23 in Washington, DC. Photo by Alex Wroblewski/Getty

Democratic lawmakers who were in the room when Republicans first gained access painted a picture of a somewhat chaotic scene that unfolded.

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) said the Republicans "stormed" into the room and that some, such as Reps. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) and Bradley Bryne (R-AL), were essentially yelling about the illegitimate impeachment process.

Rep. Mike Quigley (D-IL) said Republicans "pushed their way in" to the room, some of whom then allegedly took photos or filmed.

Electronic devices, such as cell phones, are strictly prohibited from the SCIF, lending Quigley to say his GOP counterparts "have no respect" for the inquiry process. He also said it would be up to leadership whether to file House ethics complaints against the GOP members who came in.

Several lawmakers later confirmed that officials had to sweep the room for devices to ensure it was secured.

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), the ranking member on Oversight, acknowledged that some of his GOP colleagues walked into the room with cell phones and that they were later collected by other Republicans familiar with the SCIF's rules.

"They shouldn't do that, but they're not used to this," Jordan said. "It was a mistake, so no big deal. They understand now and it won't happen again."

Jordan said that he and his fellow Republicans "reached a boiling point" with the process, thus leading to the testimony showdown.

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), a member of Oversight, said they did not coordinate their efforts with the White House. But Bloomberg reported otherwise, citing a White House meeting with dozens of Republicans on Tuesday where Trump signed off on the plan.

Democrats have argued that their impeachment inquiry, under House rules, is permitted to be conducted behind closed doors. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), chairman of the Intelligence Committee, has vowed to eventually hold some public hearings and make some of the information and testimony transcripts public.

In a letter obtained by Newsweek Wednesday evening, top Republicans on the Oversight and Intelligence panels—Jim Jordan of Ohio and Devin Nunes of California, respectively—again called on Schiff for more transparency and to have the anonymous whistleblower, who first broke the Ukraine scandal, testify before Congress.

One member, GOP Rep. Chris Stewart of Utah, suggested while it may be allowed to operate the inquiry in private, it was the wrong way to conduct such a consequential investigation.

"This may be within House rules. That's not the question," Stewart said. "The question is, is it a good idea to impeach the president in secret hearings?"

On Tuesday, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, Bill Taylor, said to lawmakers in his opening remarks that Trump withheld some $400 million in foreign military aid meant to help Ukraine fight Russian aggression as part of a quid pro quo to force the country to investigate the Biden family and 2016 election interference. Those remarks were viewed by Democrats, who've alleged a quid pro quo tied to Trump's political rivals took place, as a smoking gun.