Political tensions over an intensifying impeachment inquiry reached fever pitch on Wednesday as Republicans “stormed” a closed-door committee hearing on Capitol Hill where another witness to the Ukraine controversy was appearing – a day after devastating testimony from a key diplomat.
A group of Republican members of the House of Representatives, chanting “Let us in”, barged into a secure, in-camera hearing room where Laura Cooper, a top Pentagon official who oversees Ukraine policy, was set to testify before the committees in charge of the inquiry.
The chaos and confusion temporarily shut down the proceedings as Republicans tweeted live updates of the disruption from their cell phones, which are not typically permitted in classified areas, and reportedly entered into yelling matches with committee members.
“BREAKING: I led over 30 of my colleagues into the SCIF where Adam Schiff is holding secret impeachment depositions. Still inside – more details to come,” tweeted Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican congressman and one of Donald Trump’s closest allies on Capitol Hill, referring to secured areas of the Capitol known as Sensitive Compartmented Information Facilities, or SCIFs, and Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the House intelligence committee leading the Trump-Ukraine impeachment inquiry.
The Republicans who led the protest do not sit on the three committees involved in the impeachment inquiry and are not permitted to attend. Members of those committees already include Republican members of Congress, as well as Democrats and both parties attend and ask questions at the hearings, whether public or, as in this case, closed to the public and the press.
But the members involved in the action on Wednesday have sought to attack the inquiry on procedural grounds, protesting the private nature of the hearings and demanding access to the full breadth of the testimony that has rattled Washington in recent weeks.
Much of the testimony that has been made public by the committee, however, and news reports confirm key elements of a whistleblower complaint that set in motion the impeachment inquiry. The investigation centers on reports of Donald Trump withholding military aid and dangling a meeting at the White House for Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, in return for favors that would benefit him in domestic US politics.
The invading Republicans were still in the chamber by early afternoon and ordered in pizza.
“Reporting from Adam Schiff’s secret chamber,” Republican congressman Andy Biggs began, in a series of tweets from inside the room. Biggs has accused Democrats of conducting a “Soviet style” impeachment inquiry and demanded the testimony be made available to all lawmakers.
“When Republican members were in the SCIF, Chairman Schiff immediately left with the witness,” he tweeted.
The dramatic escalation by Republicans on Capitol Hill came after Bill Taylor, the most senior US diplomat in Kyiv, testified for hours before House investigators on Tuesday, delivering an account that was so shocking to some lawmakers, freshman Democrat congressman Andy Levin described it as “my most disturbing day in Congress so far – very troubling”.
In a lengthy opening statement, Taylor told lawmakers that Trump wanted “everything,” including military aid to Ukraine, tied to a commitment by the country’s leaders to investigate Democrats and the 2016 election as well as a company linked to the family of Trump’s leading 2020 Democratic rival, Joe Biden.
“He said that President Trump wanted President Zelensky ‘in a public box’ by making a public statement about ordering such investigations,” Taylor said.
Trump emerged briefly on Wednesday to declare victory in enforcing what he called a “permanent” ceasefire along the northern Syrian border after his abrupt withdrawal of US troops effectively opened the door for a Turkish offensive against Kurdish-led forces in that region, leaving scores of civilians and fighters dead and hundreds of thousands of people displaced.
The president, who has denied any wrongdoing in the impeachment inquiry, spent the morning on Twitter downplaying the investigation’s findings, including Taylor’s explosive testimony. He didn’t address the impeachment issues or take any questions after delivering his statement on Syria.
Later, leaving the White House for Pittsburgh to speak at a fracking conference, Trump was unusually quiet when heading to the Marine One helicopter on the lawn.
He has become accustomed to often relatively lengthy sessions of questions and answers with reporters gathered outside, on his way to the helicopter, which has become known as “chopper talk”, but he did not take any questions on Wednesday.
Meanwhile a report emerged noting that as early as 7 May, newly-elected Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy told senior aides he was already worried about pressure from the Trump to investigate his Democratic rivals.
The group of advisers spent most of a three-hour meeting talking about how to navigate the insistence from Trump and his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, for such an investigation, and how to avoid becoming entangled in the American elections, according to three people familiar with the details of the meeting.
Among the many defenses the White House has offered is that Ukraine had not been aware that Trump was withholding military aid that Congress approved for the country unless it launched two investigations.
Associated Press contributed to this report.