Wednesday 13 November 2019

Republican politicians storm hearing room to disrupt Donald Trump impeachment inquiry

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) speaks during a press conference alongside House Republicans on Capitol Hill on October 23, 2019 in Washington, DC. The press conference called for transparency regarding the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump. (Photo by Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images)
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) speaks during a press conference alongside House Republicans on Capitol Hill on October 23, 2019 in Washington, DC. The press conference called for transparency regarding the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump. (Photo by Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images)

Richard Cowan, Mark Hosenball and Patricia Zengerle

A U.S. House of Representatives impeachment inquiry devolved into chaos on Wednesday as Republican politicians, encouraged by President Donald Trump to get tougher in fighting Democratic efforts to impeach him, stormed into a high-security hearing room and delayed testimony by a key Pentagon witness.

More than two dozen Republican lawmakers who were not authorised to attend the hearing surged into the room where Laura Cooper, the U.S. defense official who oversees Ukraine and Russia matters, was due to testify behind closed doors before Republican and Democratic politicians.

The protesting Republicans yelled complaints that the Democrats in charge of running the inquiry were conducting the process in private, lawmakers and aides said. After a delay of around four hours, Cooper began her testimony.

In a dramatic confrontation during the escalating probe that threatens Trump's presidency even as he seeks re-election next year, the Republican politicians caused a standoff with the three Democratic-led House committees leading the inquiry before finally leaving the room, allowing Cooper to begin her testimony.

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The Department of Defense had directed Cooper, who had agreed to testify voluntarily, not to appear for her scheduled deposition. The House Intelligence Committee subpoenaed her early Wednesday and she complied, according to an official working on the impeachment inquiry.

The impeachment probe focuses on Trump's request for Ukraine to investigate a domestic rival - former Vice President Joe Biden, who is a frontrunner for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination - for his personal political benefit.

Congressman Mark Meadows (R-NC) (L) enters a secure area as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Laura Cooper testifies in a closed-door deposition as part of the U.S. House of Representatives impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., October 23, 2019. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
Congressman Mark Meadows (R-NC) (L) enters a secure area as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Laura Cooper testifies in a closed-door deposition as part of the U.S. House of Representatives impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., October 23, 2019. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
U.S. House Republicans speak to reporters after Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Laura Cooper arrived to testify at a closed-door deposition as part of the U.S. House of Representatives impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Trump led by the House Intelligence, House Foreign Affairs and House Oversight and Reform Committees on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S. October 23, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso
Congressman Mark Meadows (R-NC) looks back at reporters as he enters a secure area as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Laura Cooper testifies in a closed-door deposition as part of the U.S. House of Representatives impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., October 23, 2019. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Laura Cooper, the Pentagon official in charge of Ukraine and Russia policy, arrives behind U.S. Capitol Police officers and an aide or attorney to testify at a closed-door deposition as part of the U.S. House of Representatives impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Trump led by the House Intelligence, House Foreign Affairs and House Oversight and Reform Committees on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., October 23, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso? TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) with other Republican congressmen walks out to speaks to the media outside a secure area as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Laura Cooper testifies in a closed-door deposition as part of the U.S. House of Representatives impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., October 23, 2019. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
Congressman Matt Gaetz (R-FL) (R) listens to House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) as he speaks to the media outside a secure area while Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Laura Cooper testifies in a closed-door deposition as part of the U.S. House of Representatives impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., October 23, 2019. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
Congressman Matt Gaetz (R-FL) face reporters outside a secure area while Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Laura Cooper testifies in a closed-door deposition as part of the U.S. House of Representatives impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., October 23, 2019. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
Staffers deliver pizza for members of the media as they wait outside a secure area while Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Laura Cooper testifies in a closed-door deposition as part of the U.S. House of Representatives impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., October 23, 2019. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
Congressman Mark Meadows (R-NC) welcomes members of the media to have pizza as they wait outside a secure area as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Laura Cooper testifies in a closed-door deposition as part of the U.S. House of Representatives impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., October 23, 2019. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
Congressman Mark Meadows (R-NC) looks back at reporters as he enters a secure area as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Laura Cooper testifies in a closed-door deposition as part of the U.S. House of Representatives impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., October 23, 2019. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) with other Republican congressmen speaks to the media outside a secure area as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Laura Cooper testifies in a closed-door deposition as part of the U.S. House of Representatives impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., October 23, 2019. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
Congressman Louie Gohmert (R-TX) speaks to the media outside a secure area as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Laura Cooper testifies in a closed-door deposition as part of the U.S. House of Representatives impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., October 23, 2019. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) with other Republican congressmen leave a secure area as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Laura Cooper testifies in a closed-door deposition as part of the U.S. House of Representatives impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., October 23, 2019. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
Congressman Jim Jordan (R-OH) listens to House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) as he speaks to the media outside a secure area REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
Republican congressmen speak to the media outside a secure area as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Laura Cooper testifies in a closed-door deposition as part of the U.S. House of Representatives impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., October 23, 2019. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) with other Republican congressmen speaks to the media outside a secure area as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Laura Cooper testifies in a closed-door deposition as part of the U.S. House of Representatives impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., October 23, 2019. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) with other Republican congressmen speaks to the media outside a secure area as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Laura Cooper testifies in a closed-door deposition as part of the U.S. House of Representatives impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., October 23, 2019. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

By having Republican politicians barge into the hearing room, Trump's allies sought to put the focus on what they portray as unfair Democratic tactics rather than on the president's conduct.

READ MORE: Democrats' lay out case for Trump impeachment probe, more key witnesses set to appear

"The American people have a voice in this process. They have a right to know. It should be in the sunlight," House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy told reporters.

Although the Republicans complained of a lack of transparency in the inquiry, the U.S. Constitution gives the House wide latitude in how to conduct the impeachment process and set rules for the probe. The inquiry is being conducted in a secure room used to brief politiciansabout confidential or sensitive material.

U.S. House Oversight and Reform Committee ranking member Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), enters a closed session before the House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight committees on Capitol Hill on October 23, 2019 in Washington, DC. Photo by Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images
U.S. House Oversight and Reform Committee ranking member Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), enters a closed session before the House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight committees on Capitol Hill on October 23, 2019 in Washington, DC. Photo by Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images

"They're freaked out. They're trying to stop this investigation," Democratic Representative Ted Lieu said of the Republicans. "They know more facts are going to be delivered which are absolutely damning to the president of the United States."

A witness inside the room said the Republicans brought cellphones into the facility even though electronic devices are forbidden. An Intelligence Committee official said some Republicans refused to remove their phones. The House parliamentarian ruled that the Republican politicians violated House rules, the official added.

Congressman Mark Meadows (R-NC) looks back at reporters as he enters a secure area as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Laura Cooper testifies in a closed-door deposition as part of the U.S. House of Representatives impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., October 23, 2019. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
Congressman Mark Meadows (R-NC) looks back at reporters as he enters a secure area as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Laura Cooper testifies in a closed-door deposition as part of the U.S. House of Representatives impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., October 23, 2019. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff told reporters that the witnesses testifying in the inquiry have defied the White House efforts to keep them silent and that "the president has urged his acolytes in Congress to use other means to try to prevent their testimony. But they won't be successful",

Trump on Monday told reporters that "Republicans have to get tougher and fight" the impeachment, saying the Democrats are "vicious and they stick together."

Congressman Matt Gaetz (R-FL) (R) listens to House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) as he speaks to the media outside a secure area while Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Laura Cooper testifies in a closed-door deposition as part of the U.S. House of Representatives impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., October 23, 2019. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
Congressman Matt Gaetz (R-FL) (R) listens to House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) as he speaks to the media outside a secure area while Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Laura Cooper testifies in a closed-door deposition as part of the U.S. House of Representatives impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., October 23, 2019. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

Trump also criticised his Republican critics on Twitter, writing: "The Never Trumper Republicans, though on respirators with not many left, are in certain ways worse and more dangerous for our Country than the Do Nothing Democrats. Watch out for them, they are human scum!"

READ MORE: Confronted by impeachment, Trump adds to the chaos

President Donald Trump had claimed no-one in his administration would give evidence to the impeachment inquiry (Evan Vucci/AP)
President Donald Trump had claimed no-one in his administration would give evidence to the impeachment inquiry (Evan Vucci/AP)

Before the hearing room was stormed, dozens of House Republicans appeared before reporters with some denouncing the impeachment process as a "joke," a "railroad job," a "charade" and "Soviet-style." They complained that testimony was being taken privately rather than in public hearings and that the House did not hold a vote formally authorising the investigation.

Republicans who are members of the three committees have taken part in the process throughout.

Cooper, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, began testifying on Wednesday afternoon after the standoff ended, an Intelligence Committee official said. Cooper was expected to face questions about Trump's decision this year to withhold $391 million in security assistance to Ukraine approved by Congress.

In testimony to the inquiry on Tuesday, William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, said Trump had made the aid contingent on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy announcing he would conduct politically motivated investigations that Trump demanded.

Taylor said he was told by the U.S. envoy to the European Union that Trump had linked the aid's release to public declarations by Zelenskiy that he would investigate Biden, his son Hunter Biden's tenure on the board of a Ukrainian energy company, and a debunked conspiracy theory that Ukraine meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

So far, few Republicans have appeared inclined toward Trump's removal, though there have been some cracks in their support. Senator John Thune, the Senate's No. 2 Republican, told reporters that the picture painted by Taylor's testimony "based on the reporting that we've seen is not a good one."

The inquiry could lead to the House passing formal charges known as articles of impeachment, prompting a trial in the Republican-controlled Senate on whether to remove Trump from office.

Democratic lawmakers hope to complete the impeachment inquiry by year's end and are coalescing around two articles of impeachment: abuse of power and obstruction, lawmakers and aides told Reuters.

Democratic Representative David Cicilline told reporters that holding the depositions in private protects the integrity of the inquiry.

Adam Schiff, chairman of the House intelligence committee, arrives for a formerly planned joint committee deposition with ambassador Gordon Sondland (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)
Adam Schiff, chairman of the House intelligence committee, arrives for a formerly planned joint committee deposition with ambassador Gordon Sondland (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

"One of the reasons you do these in private is because you want to prevent witnesses from attempting to align their testimony to the testimony of another witness by watching it or reading a transcript. It's how you protect the integrity of any investigation," Cicilline said.

READ MORE: ‘See you at the polls’: Trump and Pelosi in war of words

Democratic Representative Eric Swalwell added, "We see this as an effort not only to intimidate this witness but also to intimidate future witnesses from coming forward. It's not going to work. We're not going to be deterred."

The impeachment inquiry, triggered by a whistleblower complaint against Trump by a person within the U.S. intelligence community, focuses on a July 25 telephone call in which Trump asked Zelenskiy to carry out those two investigations. Zelenskiy agreed during the call. The aid was later provided.

Federal election law prohibits candidates from accepting foreign help in an election.

Reuters

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