Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.
WASHINGTON — House Republicans pulled a stunt to derail impeachment proceedings on Wednesday, storming the classified room where depositions were taking place to highlight their complaints about Democrats’ closed-door impeachment proceedings.
But while they were more than happy to yell about process, few stepped up to defend President Trump against the damning testimony Tuesday by career diplomat Bill Taylor, that Trump had held up military assistance to Ukraine to try to get them to investigate his political rivals.
Two dozen or so GOP lawmakers, led by top Trump apologist and Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), barged into the secure room in the Capitol complex with a few shouting at House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff about an unfair process.
The group of Trump defenders showed what an amateur hour it was by bringing in their cell phones, a security risk and violation of House rules. Their disruption kept the day’s witness, Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary Laura Cooper, from testifying to the trio of committees responsible for the impeachment inquiry, delaying proceedings for hours until they could finally get back on track late in the afternoon.
The Republican lawmakers refused to leave for hours, carrying on their Brooks Brothers street theater until they got bored and ordered pizza in the sit-in. The testimony room, known as a SCIF or sensitive compartmented information facility, had to be swept by Capitol police to make sure no electronics were left in the room after the GOP lawmakers violated its security. The House Sergeant-at-Arms eventually arrived to oversee the resecuritization — and attempt in vain to restore order.
But even as they carried on their old white man protest and railed against Democrats for keeping the depositions private for now (so that witnesses can’t align their stories), Republicans routinely refused to engage with the facts and respond to the Taylor testimony.
“There's so many people are wondering what is going on inside that room there,” Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Calif.) was one the SCIF crashers, told VICE News. “We should be allowed to be a part of it.”
But what did he make of acting U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor’s Tuesday testimony that Trump had withheld military aid to Ukraine as he demanded the country’s president publicly investigate Trump’s political rivals?
“Well, let’s see what kind of axe to grind this guy has,” LaMalfa said about Taylor, a widely respected diplomat who has served presidents of both parties for decades.
He dodged when asked if he’d be concerned if what Taylor claimed proved true, saying “there's a lot of nuance there” and he’d have to decide on the facts when they came out. And when asked why Republicans were arguing process rather than defend Trump on the facts of the case so farthat are known at this point, he said it was because “ we aren’t privy to what these facts are.”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) wasn’t one of the SCIF-crashers, but came to defend them and slam Democrats for their closed-door impeachment process.
“There's nothing that happening inside there that is classified. This should happen in the light of day and every member should be able to have input,” McCarthy told reporters.
But the GOP leader dodged when asked why he wasn’t concerned with Taylor’s accusations.
“Much of what Mr. Taylor said yesterday was second-, third- and fourth-hand information,” McCarthy shrugged, before claiming that because Ukraine didn’t find out there was a hold on its military aid until late August and the aid was released in early September, there was nothing wrong with what transpired.
Shortly after he made that argument, the New York Times reported that Ukrainian leaders had known about the stall on military aid weeks before that, blowing apart that talking point.
Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas) had every right to be in the committee hearing, as a member of the House Intelligence Committee. And when his GOP colleagues crashed the party, he was the one who had them hand over their electronics to try to fix their security violation.
Conaway wouldn’t discuss Taylor’s damning opening statement, which leaked to reporters on Wednesday, because he said it was private testimony — until he decided to push back on some of it as “an interpretation of something he heard from somebody who heard it from somebody else” rather than firsthand information. He dismissed the actual publicly releasedrough transcript of the call where Trump asked Ukraine’s president to investigate his political opponents, saying it sounded to him like “two heads of state having a good conversation.” He shrugged at other public statements that Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, was running a shadow foreign policy Ukraine because he “should have wide latitude to have folks work on his behalf,” and claimed Trump was worried about “overall corruption.”
Democrats rolled their eyes at the effort.
“It's a stunt. They can get some camera play today, but it's not going to deter us from doing our work, continuing to collect the evidence that is essential to this impeachment inquiry,” Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) said. “And it's frankly an effort to change the subject from what we learned yesterday, which was really devastating testimony from Ambassador Taylor.”
Cover: Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., left, and other members conduct a news conference in the Capitol Visitor Center outside the Laura Cooper, deputy assistant secretary of defense, deposition related to the House's impeachment inquiry on Wednesday, October 23, 2019. The Republican members were calling for access to the deposition. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP Images)