The events we just witnessed in the House of Representatives will surely earn an honored place in the annals of congressional clownishness.
Just as the House Intelligence Committee was preparing to hear testimony from another important witness in the impeachment inquiry, a couple dozen Republican members of Congress stormed into the room, phones in hand, and started live-tweeting their protest.
Because the hearing was to be held in a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, or SCIF — after all, it involved potentially sensitive and classified information — that put Republicans in violation of the room’s ban on cellphones.
Why did Republicans want to disrupt the proceedings? Because the testimony on tap is likely to add to the case against President Trump, perhaps substantially.
The person set to testify is Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Laura Cooper, the Pentagon official in charge of policy toward Ukraine. The committee wants to nail down more information about the hundreds of millions of dollars in security aid appropriated for Ukraine that Trump withheld to leverage the Ukrainian government into launching sham investigations to help his reelection campaign.
“It’s no coincidence that Republicans did this literally right after Ambassador Taylor’s devastating testimony,” Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) told us, referring to acting ambassador to Ukraine William B. Taylor Jr.’s forceful declaration of that clear quid quo pro.
“They know that Laura Cooper today would corroborate parts of that very damning testimony against the president,” Lieu continued. “And they’re trying to stop that from going forward.”
This display of lawlessness is not a small matter. As former congressional aide Mieke Eoyang helpfully explains, the whole point of having a secure facility is that it’s, well, secure.
So there are good reasons electronic devices are not allowed in a SCIF. There might be documents or other materials present whose exposure would be harmful to national security. Members of Congress are frequent targets for foreign intelligence services who might want to, say, hack their phones to turn them into listening devices. To have a bunch of them just storm into a SCIF compromises that security.
What’s more, the main argument Republicans are making to justify this display is just nonsense. They’re pretending to be outraged that the impeachment inquiry is being carried out behind closed doors.
“If behind those doors they intend to overturn the result of an American presidential election, we want to know what’s going on,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), one of Trump’s most rabid defenders.
“This shouldn’t be happening in the United States of America, where they’re trying to impeach a President in secret, behind closed doors,” added Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.).
But here’s the thing: These hearings are being conducted with the full involvement of the Republican members of the three committees doing the inquiring. Not only are Republicans given equivalent time for questioning, but any member of any of the committees — Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight — is welcome to attend any of these sessions.
So the idea that Republicans are being shut out is just false.
“What makes this ridiculous is that they were storming a castle that they already occupy,” Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) told us.
Trump’s own apparent involvement in this is equally absurd. Bloomberg reports that Trump supported this whole plot in advance, because he wanted Republicans to storm in and liberate transcripts of interviews, in the belief that they’ll exonerate him.
But this is just the first phase of the inquiry, which will soon pass into its public phase.
“The transcripts are all going to be released publicly, and there will be public hearings,” Lieu told us. “So all of these stupid process arguments that Republicans are making are going to go away.”
At which point Republicans will protest that it’s all a show for the cameras. And when the transcripts don’t exonerate Trump at all, he’ll rage-tweet lies about them.
Still, it’s important to note that it looks like there’s an actual strategy of sorts here — a strategy of what you might call deliberate lawlessness.
The idea seems to be not only to hamper the inquiry but also to create a sense of chaos around the entire enterprise. They want it to appear illegitimate, so they’ll do what they can to turn it into a circus. As long as people are talking about this ludicrous display (and whatever comes next), they won’t be talking as much about the misdeeds of the president, which we learn more about every day.
But ultimately, the facts just are coming out. We’ve seen an extraordinary parade of revelations in recent days. There will be many more.
“The process we’ll move forward, and we’ll move into the public phase,” Malinowski told us. If there’s a vote on articles of impeachment, as looks all but certain, “there will be a trial on the Senate floor with millions and millions of Americans watching,” Malinowski continued. “No one is going to remember some pathetic stunt Republicans pulled during the very early fact-finding phase of the House investigation.”
In other words, Trump’s real last line of defense is the Senate GOP. As has long been inevitable.