WASHINGTON — U.S. House Minority Whip Steve Scalise helped temporarily shut down the Democrat-led impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump on Wednesday when Scalise led a group of Republicans in storming a room where witnesses were set to be deposed behind closed doors.
“We came today to express our strong outrage at what’s happening in that secret room,” Scalise said when he and about two dozen other Republicans left their protest nearly four hours after rushing into the secured area where the House Select Committee on Intelligence has been hearing testimony in its ongoing probe into Trump’s dealings with Ukraine.
“We wanted to hear what was going on so that we could know, so that our constituents can have a voice that they deserve in this impeachment inquiry,” added Scalise, of Jefferson.
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The unusual protest in the Capitol basement is the latest push by Trump’s allies, of which Scalise has been a key voice, to cast doubt on the ongoing impeachment probe.
Just two days earlier, Trump appeared to chide Republicans for not defending him more forcefully.
“Republicans have to get tougher and fight,” Trump said during a public Cabinet meeting that lasted 71 minutes. “We have some that are great fighters, but they have to get tougher and fight because the Democrats are trying to hurt the Republican Party for the election.”
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Trump’s GOP defenders vacated their committee hearing protest less than 30 minutes after Trump, who was in Pennsylvania as the Capitol event unfolded, sent a series of supportive tweets about them.
The panel had not yet started its deposition of Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Laura Cooper, who oversees Russian, Ukrainian, and Eurasian affairs, when the Republicans entered. Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., ushered her out of the room as Republicans made their way inside.
Under House rules, only members of three key impeachment inquiry committees — Oversight and Reform; Intelligence; and Foreign Affairs — are authorized to attend the closed-door hearings, even when testimony isn’t classified.
U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins, R-Port Barre, is the only member of the Louisiana delegation who is on one of them and has been taking part in the hearings.
Democrats blasted the GOP action. They argued it could have threatened national security, as some members had their phones in the Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility — commonly called a SCIF — and could taint the ongoing investigation into claims that Trump withheld aid from Ukraine in exchange for a political favor.
The SCIF they stormed is a secure room in the Capitol basement where electronic devices aren't allowed. There are several of them around the Capitol.
“House Republicans, led by their whip, Scalise, and authorized by the majority leader, stormed through a secured facility,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat who is on the Intelligence Committee. “This is also an effort to intimidate witnesses that come forward.”
He declined to speculate whether the Republicans who entered the secured area could face ethics charges.
U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows, a North Carolina Republican who is on the oversight committee and is authorized to sit in on the hearings, said he collected phones from members who had mistakenly brought them into the room. Others, including U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., defended the move as a “peaceful protest.”
U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, sent a letter to the House sergeant-at-arms, to complain about the move.
“This unprecedented breach of security raises serious concerns for Committee Chairmen, including me, responsible for maintaining SCIFs,” he wrote. “As such, I am requesting you take action with respect to the members involved in the breach. More broadly, I urge you to take House-wide action to remind all members about the dangers of such reckless action and the potential national security risks of such behavior.”
Republicans who made it into the hearing argued they were trying to negotiate more access, and Scalise said they initially just wanted to hear the testimony.
“As we got in there, Adam Schiff got up and left with the witness,” Scalise said. “Now, think about this, if you walk into a room and you turn on the light, and as soon as you turn on the light some of the people in the room run out of the room, it begs the question — what do they have to hide?”
“We were there peacefully, we were there to hear what was going on, we actually wanted to hear the witness,” he said.
Other Republican members of Louisiana’s delegation also have decried the impeachment inquiry.
“True investigators interview everyone, not just those who lead to a predetermined conclusion,” Higgins said Tuesday. “Democrats are handpicking witnesses and selectively releasing information to mislead the American people.”
U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, an Alto Republican who recently lost a bid for governor, argued that, as a member of the Armed Services Committee, he had a right to hear the Defense official’s testimony.
U.S. Rep. Mike Johnson, R-Benton, filed formal requests with the chairmen of the three authorized committees seeking access to documents because of his role on the Judiciary Committee, which is set to take the next step of the impeachment process after the investigation is completed.