A SCIF in Stormy Seas

With the investigation going badly for Trump, House Republicans attack the investigators.

Flanked by about two dozen House Republicans, Matt Gaetz speaks during a press conference at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday.
Rep. Matt Gaetz speaks during a press conference at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday. Alex Wong/Getty Images

If we can measure the severity of new information uncovered in the House’s impeachment inquiry by the lengths to which the president’s closest defenders will go to distract from it, acting Ukraine Ambassador Bill Taylor’s opening testimony on Tuesday was as damning for the president as it read.

On Wednesday morning, as impeachment ringleader Rep. Adam Schiff and members of three investigating committees prepared to depose Defense Department official Laura Cooper in the House’s Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF)—a secure area of the Capitol in which electronics, and unauthorized members, are not allowed—a couple dozen far-right Republicans, many of whom had met with the president the previous day, pulled off a stunt.

The president’s loyalists have been arguing that the depositions should be conducted in the open. And so, after corralling the press to rail against the “sham” investigation Democrats have been conducting, these members walked past security and into the SCIF, where they shouted at Democrats until committee members were forced to delay the deposition.

Over the next few hours, Republican members would come in and out of the secure rooms. What were they doing in there? None could say. Some had brought their cellphones in with them—and used them!—a violation of House rules and potentially … the law? Around lunchtime, they had four pizzas from Capitol Hill eatery We the Pizza delivered to the secure sanctum. The SCIF was compromised, and proceedings couldn’t continue until the facility was swept of these … these people.

Democrats considered bringing in the sergeant-at-arms to have the intruders forcibly removed, but as Democratic Rep. Stephen Lynch told reporters, “having members hauled off, even though it might give some great pleasure,” might have been too “theatrical” a move that Republican wannabe martyrs would have enjoyed.

The motivation for the performance was not a mystery. Taylor’s 15-page testimony the day before had been the most thorough, vivid presentation of the Ukranian “quid pro quo” at the heart of the impeachment inquiry since the transcript of President Donald Trump’s call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was released in late September. It left little room to defend the president’s actions, as laid out by Taylor, on their substance. Since House Republicans are determined to defend the president regardless, that meant they had to work more aggressively on attacking the process. Busting into a secure area with smartphones to delay proceedings, get media attention, shout at Schiff, and eat pizza was the president’s allies opposite—but not equal—reaction to the Tuesday’s escalation of the impeachment inquiry.

Republicans were as eager to complain about how the investigation was being conducted as they were creative in making excuses for why they couldn’t discuss the specifics of the president’s actions.

“These proceedings are contrary to American law, they’re being held privately and in secret in the basement of the Capitol, and that the American people and United States congressmen are being denied access to the evidence, the documents, and the testimony,” Rep. Mo Brooks, one of the SCIF-stormers, told me when asked what point they were trying to make. He added that, upon the break-in, Schiff left without saying a word, and then there were “heated words exchanged between various Republican congressmen and socialist congressmen.”

When I tried to get his take on the substance of Taylor’s opening remarks, though, Brooks said he “gave it zero weight whatsoever, because the process is being abused.” Neither he, nor the public, have “what the cross-examined questions were, or the answers, that may have probed whether this witness was being truthful or not. We have no way of knowing.” And while Brooks said that he didn’t have his phone in the SCIF, he had no concern about other members having theirs “because it ought to be a public proceeding.”

“But for emphasis,” he said, as I was walking away, “I did not have mine.”

When Texas Rep. Dan Crenshaw emerged from the SCIF, he happily spoke to the press about how the lack of transparency should concern all Americans. He had much less to say about Taylor’s opening statement.

“I don’t get to have a reaction because I don’t get to see it, he said.” But … the opening statement has been published?

“Sure, but I want to see the questions, I want to see all of it,” he said.

Republicans who would engage with the testimony offered a similar defense to when the original whistleblower’s complaint was released: that the witness allegations were secondhand.

“I think what [Taylor] said was that he was told, or that he believed that, but he had no firsthand knowledge,” North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows said. Trump, personally, did not tell Taylor that Ukrainian security assistance was tied to Zelensky announcing investigations into Burisma and 2016 election conspiracy theories. Instead, Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, told Taylor that the president had told him that.

That would be secondhand, and a very close secondhand at that. It is not, as House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy told reporters, “thirdhand or fourthhand.” McCarthy, nevertheless, made his best effort to deny that there was a “quid pro quo” using Taylor’s assumptions: that Ukraine got its security assistance without acceding to any of the president’s demands.

“July 25 was the phone call between President Trump and the president of Ukraine,” McCarthy said. “What we found out later was, on Aug. 29, Ukraine found out the money was being held. Where did they find out? From a Politico article. The money was released Sept. 11. Name me one thing Ukraine did to have the money released? Nothing. To have a quid pro quo, you have to exchange [something]. Nothing transformed. So why are you trying to create something out of nothing?”

That this generous reading—that leveraging already-appropriated security assistance to a foreign country to squeeze that country into helping Trump politically is not an abuse of power, because Trump eventually backed down under public pressure—is Trump defenders’ best response to the substance of Taylor’s testimony explains why most of his defenders are happier escalating the process disputes instead.

After the Trump-Zelensky phone call readout was released, there was a significant contingent of members willing to suggest that the content of the call was fine,and that it showed Trump acting at his absolute most presidential. There is no such contingent of members trying to endorse the behavior described in Taylor’s testimony.

The complaints about secrecy and procedure will run out of gas soon. The closed-door depositions are wrapping up, and after collecting all of the evidence, House Democrats will hold public hearings. When the process complaints run dry, and when it’s no longer possible to contort even the most elaborate substantive defenses, Republicans might have to move to a position where they admit that the president didn’t act great, but that his transgressions don’t rise to the level of impeachment. Maybe they can stage a citizen’s arrest of Schiff before it comes to that.

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