About two dozen Republican members of Congress stormed a secure hearing room in the U.S. Capitol basement Wednesday, complaining that the Democratic-led impeachment inquiry was secretive and partisan. “We don’t even know what’s going on,” said Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.).
Objections to the fairness of the process have become a central part of the Republican case against the impeachment investigation. The reality inside the closed-door hearing, however, is more complex: Republicans have participated in each deposition, though their role is constrained by the Democratic majority.
At each hearing, at least a dozen lawmakers — often more — sit along a rectangular table, Republicans on the right, Democrats on the left, said Rep. Harley Rouda (D-Laguna Beach). Each side gets equal time to ask questions.
Forty-seven Republican lawmakers from three House committees — Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight — have been allowed to attend and participate in all of the depositions of the eight diplomats and government officials brought in to testify so far. The 57 Democrats from those three committees also may attend, but no other lawmakers from either party may enter.
The panels are examining President Trump’s actions to pressure Ukrainian officials to investigate his political enemies, based on unsubstantiated allegations, even as he was withholding much-needed security aid to the war-torn country.
Anywhere from about six to several dozen GOP members have shown up each day, sometimes walking in and out of daylong depositions, usually slightly fewer than the number of Democrats in attendance, according to several lawmakers in the room.
Some of the president’s strongest allies, Reps. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.), have been in the room for nearly every minute of the depositions, according to GOP aides. Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), former chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus and a Trump ally, is there nearly as often. The trio have asked the majority of the questions on behalf of Republican members, Rouda said.
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), who helped lead the charge Wednesday, dubbed them “some of our very best members,” but said they can’t stand in for every Republican. “There are millions of Americans that they don’t represent.”
The ranking Republican on the Intelligence Committee, another of Trump’s staunchest allies, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare), has also attended some hearings.
Republicans argue that the Democrats’ process is unfair because the president is not allowed to have counsel in the deposition room. They say Democrats are rushing the process, cherry-picking material to leak to reporters and classifying material that shouldn’t be classified.
Only six Republican staff members are allowed in the depositions, according to a senior Republican aide, who said Democrats are afforded more. Republicans accuse Democrats of removing chairs that GOP staffers had been using in the hallway of the secured area.
Republicans say Democrats recently clamped down on the process by which committee members can review the interview transcripts. GOP staff can now only review the transcripts in a secure room with what they refer to as a “Democratic minder,” according to a senior Republican aide.
Democrats dismiss the GOP complaints, saying they are trying to preserve the integrity of an investigation that began a month ago and prevent witnesses from coordinating their stories. They say Republicans and the White House will have the opportunity to defend Trump during open House hearings and a Senate trial — which Republicans will control — but the current process is more akin to grand jury investigations, which are always confidential.
“What the Republicans are asking for is insane. No law enforcement or any committee doing investigations will just do it in the public,” Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) said.
Democrats say Republicans would rather take issue with the process than talk about the evidence being presented. “I guess when you’re desperate, you go back to complaining about the process,” said Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.). “And that’s what they are doing,”
Republicans have not challenged the details of top U.S. diplomat to Ukraine William Taylor’s potentially damning testimony that came out Tuesday, saying deposition rules prevent them from doing so. Citing detailed notes, Taylor drew for lawmakers a direct line between the president’s demand that Ukraine launch investigations that could benefit him and the withholding of congressionally approved military aid.
The Constitution affords the House the ability to impeach a president but provides no rules for how it must do so. That means the party that controls the House largely gets to determine how it proceeds.
House Intelligence Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank) has vowed to release the transcripts of the depositions at some point and to hold public hearings, though so far he has not signaled when that might be.
The majority of the questioning at the hearings is done by staff lawyers, with occasional interruptions from lawmakers, according to several people in the room. Democratic lawyers get the first hour of questioning, followed by an hour from Republicans. They continue in that cycle in 45-minute increments with occasional breaks.
In contrast to the partisan bickering outside the secured hearing room Wednesday, the depositions inside have been relatively staid, according to people in the room. Republicans are allowed to raise objections, but GOP members say such motions are futile because of the Democratic majority on the panel. Schiff can easily dispose of any complaint, they say.
Because the hearings are held behind closed doors, there has been little of the grandstanding and delay tactics often tried by lawmakers during high-profile public hearings, when they know the cameras are watching, according to lawmakers in the room. That is until Wednesday, when about two dozen Republicans crashed the deposition of Defense Department official Laura Cooper, delaying it by several hours.
“I had to remind them that there were no television cameras, so folks back home weren’t witnessing this,” Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) said to reporters.
Several Republicans entered the secured area with cellphones and appeared to tweet from the room, a violation of security protocols that prompted strong Democratic objections. They eventually left the room Wednesday, and the House parliamentarian ruled they were in violation of House deposition rules, according to a committee official.
Gaetz warned that the theatrics are unlikely to end unless Democrats change the proceedings.
“If there’s not, they should expect House Republicans will continue to forcefully make the point that Donald Trump shouldn’t be afforded less due process than President Clinton or President Nixon were afforded during impeachment proceedings,” he said.
Democrats counter that in the cases of both Clinton and Nixon, some closed-door testimony was collected.
The Clinton impeachment was based on the Whitewater investigation conducted by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr. Witnesses were interviewed behind closed doors, documents were collected from relevant agencies, and then a final report was presented to Congress.
The Nixon impeachment process began with weeks of closed-door hearings to gather evidence.
Public polls show that the general public is growing increasingly warm to the idea of pursuing an impeachment inquiry against the president.
Republicans predict the process arguments will connect with the public, particularly those voters who are predisposed to supporting the president and view the impeachment effort skeptically.
“I think the general public is seeing that they’re not getting a lot of stuff done in D.C. besides this,” said Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Richvale), one of those who stormed the hearing room.
Still, even some Republicans who say they object to the process are growing alarmed by what they are hearing from witnesses. A top Senate GOP leader, John Thune of South Dakota, told reporters Wednesday it will be hard to draw conclusions until the process becomes more transparent.
But he added: “The picture coming out of it based on the reporting that we’ve seen, is, yeah, I would say not a good one.”