Their intrusion, which caused the testimony to be delayed for about five hours over security concerns, came a day after the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine testified under oath that the White House had threatened to withhold military aid unless the Ukrainian government announced investigations for Trump’s political benefit.
The testimony undercut Trump’s claims of his “perfect” dealings with Ukraine and appeared to push Republican lawmakers into a more aggressive stance as they sought to defend the president from his greatest legal and political threat yet.
“I led over 30 of my colleagues into the SCIF where Adam Schiff is holding secret impeachment depositions,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) said Wednesday morning on Twitter, referring to the Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility. “Still inside — more details to come.”
The lawmakers staged the dramatic protest while making process arguments that sidestepped the substance of the central allegations underpinning the impeachment inquiry. Democrats accused the protesting members of compromising security by taking their phones into the secure area, where cellphones are barred.
Before entering the closed-door hearing, Republican lawmakers held a news conference to decry how Schiff, the California Democrat who runs the Intelligence Committee, was carrying out the panel’s portion of the impeachment inquiry. Several complained about the private nature of the proceedings and claimed that the inquiry was part of a long-running attempt by Democrats to overturn the result of the 2016 presidential election.
But none of the 13 Republicans who spoke defended Trump on the central allegation that he had pushed Ukraine to investigate Democrats while blocking military aid that had been approved for Kyiv.
Damning testimony from William B. Taylor Jr., the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, has rocked the White House’s impeachment defense, making it more difficult for Republicans to claim that Trump did nothing wrong. Taylor told lawmakers that Trump had personally intervened to push Ukraine to announce investigations targeting Democrats as part of a quid pro quo linking stalled U.S. military aid to political assistance from Ukraine.
After Taylor’s testimony, which included a 15-page opening statement obtained by The Washington Post, some Republicans appeared to abandon Trump’s forceful defense that there was no quid pro quo, opting for more-nuanced arguments.
“This is a messy moment, no doubt,” said Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.). “But at the same time, does it rise to a level of criminality — impeachment of a president? Doesn’t look that way to me, and the process, by the way, is very unfair. And this is what is undermining the credibility of House of Representatives.”
Other Republicans highlighted the White House’s difficulty in keeping the party in line as more damaging evidence emerges from the impeachment proceedings.
Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) also complained about the process but told reporters Wednesday that Taylor’s testimony was not positive for the Trump administration.
“The picture coming out of it based on the reporting we’ve seen I would say is not a good one, but I would say also until we have a process that allows for everybody to see this in full transparency, it’s pretty hard to draw any hard-and-fast conclusions,” he said.
Democrats have said they will open the process for public hearings in a matter of weeks after the initial stage of their investigation concludes.
For the past month, Democrats have pursued an aggressive probe into whether Trump abused his office for personal and political gain. The inquiry began after a whistleblower from the intelligence community told Congress that Trump had sought to pressure the Ukrainian government to interfere in the 2020 election by investigating Democrats.
Republicans have increasingly complained that defending Trump against those accusations is a herculean task made more difficult by the president’s impromptu tweets and the lack of coordinated messaging at the White House. As current and former Trump administration officials have testified before the Intelligence Committee, with several backing up the whistleblower’s allegations, Republicans have struggled to mount a coherent and consistent defense of the president.
Their responses have vacillated from complaints about the whistleblower’s “secondhand” knowledge of Trump’s actions to arguments that Democrats have not held a vote to authorize the impeachment inquiry, which is not required under House rules.
After Taylor’s testimony, some GOP lawmakers argued that even if Trump held up the military aid for political reasons, it was defensible because the Ukrainian government did not initially know that the money had been stalled.
“You can’t have a quid pro quo with no quo,” Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Tex.) said Tuesday in a Fox News interview that Trump amplified on Twitter.
One of Trump’s top congressional allies, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), has repeatedly asked the White House for information as he has sought to defend the president, according to a person familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal conversations.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) — who spent Tuesday defending Trump’s claim that the impeachment was a “lynching” — has also criticized the White House’s handling of the proceedings. Asked Wednesday whether the White House needed to do a better job of communicating on the impeachment inquiry, he said, “Yes.”
The White House, which did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday, has tried to take a more proactive role lately in coordinating with Hill Republicans, with limited success.
Trump has complained in recent days that no one is forcefully defending him and convened with House Freedom Caucus lawmakers Tuesday at the White House before they barged into the secure room, according to lawmakers and aides familiar with the meeting. Trump told them to take more aggressive steps to block the investigation, these people said.
He has also sought more aides to go on TV and defend him. But the administration reversed course on hiring Trey Gowdy, who would have been a TV-heavy lawyer. Trump advisers say Rudy Giuliani has been asked to tone down his appearances in recent days and has done so. And many other aides are leery of going on TV because they do not know the facts, current and former administration officials said.
“We are getting crushed right now,” said a Trump adviser who has regularly spoken to the president in recent weeks.
Turmoil within the West Wing has further complicated the impeachment response effort. Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney has faced calls for his ouster after a meandering news conference last week in which he undercut Trump’s denials of a “quid pro quo” for aid to Ukraine. Trump’s personal lawyer and the Justice Department both released statements distancing themselves from Mulvaney’s comments, which the White House later sought to walk back.
White House aides have complained that White House counsel Pat Cipollone has not shared information with others in the West Wing. Mulvaney and Cipollone have butted heads during the process, officials said.
Trump has spearheaded his own impeachment defense, regularly confounding or undercutting his allies with incendiary tweets and statements.
On Wednesday — a day after forcing Republicans to respond to his lynching comparison — Trump turned his fire on Taylor, describing the career diplomat as a “Never Trumper.” He also acknowledged, however, that his own administration had chosen Taylor for the Ukraine posting.
“It would be really great if the people within the Trump Administration, all well-meaning and good (I hope!), could stop hiring Never Trumpers, who are worse than the Do Nothing Democrats,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “Nothing good will ever come from them!”
Few Republicans have echoed Trump’s personal attacks on Taylor, a Vietnam veteran who served in the government under Republican and Democratic presidents and was originally appointed ambassador to Ukraine by President George W. Bush. Taylor said in his testimony that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, one of Trump’s closest advisers, had personally asked him to take the acting position this year.
At an event Wednesday in Pittsburgh, Trump said of Republicans: “We’ve got to stick together.”
He gave Democrats backhanded praise, saying, “They stick together, and they’re vicious.”
On his way to the event, Trump wrote on Twitter that “Never Trumper” Republicans who don’t support him are “human scum.” He later apparently deleted the tweet.
Brendan Buck, who was counselor to former House speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), said Trump’s pressuring of GOP lawmakers to back him “despite the daily chaos” has been effective because of his sway over Republican base voters.
“When Trump says Republicans in Congress aren’t doing enough to defend him, their constituents quickly demand they stick by him,” Buck said. “And then those members demand that the leadership do more to protect him. And then you end up with stunts like we saw Wednesday.”
But it is not clear that the strategy is working with the broader electorate, which has grown increasingly supportive of the Democratic-led impeachment inquiry.
In a Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday, 55 percent of voters voiced support for the impeachment inquiry, the highest level of support recorded in Quinnipiac surveys. Forty-three percent opposed the inquiry.
In the end, House Republicans’ disruption of Wednesday’s impeachment hearings also did little to derail the effort.
After the long delay, the planned impeachment testimony of Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Laura Cooper resumed inside the secure facility.
Dawsey reported from Pittsburgh. Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.