“We’re going to try to go in there,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (Fla.), a leading Trump defender, announced to reporters.
“We’re gonna go!” somebody else announced.
With that, they rushed past Capitol Police officers and burst into the secure meeting room of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence — where the day’s witness, Pentagon official Laura Cooper, was about to begin her closed-door testimony. The intruders shouted grievances about the process and defenses of the president — one reportedly got in Chairman Adam Schiff’s face — until Schiff (D-Calif.) and Cooper abandoned the room. For the next five hours, the Occupy Intelligence Committee protest continued, temporarily halting the impeachment inquiry.
They knew they were breaking House rules in insisting that they be allowed to participate in the session even though they were not among the 100 lawmakers — Democrats and Republicans — who sit on the three committees holding the inquiry. “This may very well be within Chairman Schiff and Nancy Pelosi’s authority to do this,” allowed one of the rebels, Rep. Chris Stewart (Utah).
But they also compromised security and possibly broke the law by barging into the room — a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, or SCIF — with their phones, an easy target for foreign surveillance. “It was a mistake,” Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio) said of the phones. “It won’t happen again.”
But the rules didn’t much matter, for they were acting less as lawmakers than hooligans. The evidence compiled by the inquiry looks increasingly damning as witnesses detail a clear dollars-for-dirt quid pro quo between Trump and Ukraine. Trump’s best defense may be to make the inquiry itself look like a circus. Luckily for him, Republicans have a bountiful supply of clowns.
The rebels ordered in 17 boxes of pizza for their sit-in, and an additional 15 pies for the assembled press corps — “no quid pro quo,” Rep. Mark Meadows (N.C.) joked. The rebels apparently worked up an appetite in their invasion of the SCIF, for Rep. Doug Lamborn (Colo.) soon arrived with a sack full of Chick-fil-A to follow the pizza.
Such a stunt isn’t without precedent; Democrats held a sit-in on the House floor three years ago to protest inaction on gun control. But this was an odd act of civil disobedience. Because the protesters are leaders of the civil authority they were protesting, it was more self-disobedience. These same lawmakers used the very procedure they now object to — closed-door depositions — in their Benghazi probe. Democrats have pledged that after the deposition phase — equivalent to a grand jury — they will air the allegations and defenses in public impeachment proceedings.
But that might be too late for Republicans. A Quinnipiac poll Wednesday found growing support for the inquiry — 55 percent overall, including a 50-45 advantage among independents — and the White House has been reduced to claiming that star witness Bill Taylor — West Point graduate, Vietnam infantry officer and Trump’s hand-picked acting ambassador to Ukraine — is a “radical unelected bureaucrat.”
In a moment of candor during Wednesday’s protest, Rep. Michael Waltz (Fla.) explained his objection to the closed proceedings. It will only be public, he said, “after they get this to the point they want it politically.” Hence, the need to discredit the inquiry before more evidence comes in.
Republicans took turns venturing from the SCIF to the microphones.
“This whole thing is a sham,” complained Rep. Debbie Lesko (Ariz.).
“Members have had it,” said Jordan.
“We plan to stay there until we have a more open and transparent and fair process,” said Meadows.
But isn’t this the same process as the Republicans’ Benghazi probe? “From a deposition standpoint,” Meadows admitted, “that’s probably correct.” He argued that “special times would require special accommodations.”
Democrats were in no mood to grant special accommodations. They accused the intruders of compromising security, intimidating witnesses and violating ethics rules. By rights, Democrats could have had the House sergeant at arms evict the invaders, but they declined to reward the stunt with that visual. Instead, they left the occupiers alone in the SCIF until boredom ended the rebellion. And, sure enough, soon after the pizza and Chick-fil-A had been eaten, the hooligans filed out. With a final protest for the cameras, the rebels hurried away to vote on the floor.
The deposition finally began. And the Republicans could boast to Trump that, for a glorious five hours, they had delayed the inevitable.