WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump told them to “take the gloves off.” A day later, House conservatives breached security on Capitol Hill, stormed a secure room and started tweeting.
It began with a call to action from one of Trump’s favorite lawmakers.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., the Fox News regular, led dozens of Republican members to the basement of the Capitol on Wednesday morning to disrupt the impeachment inquiry by temporarily blocking testimony from a Pentagon official summoned to detail her knowledge of the administration’s decision to withhold military aid for Ukraine.
What unfolded next was one of the most bizarre and theatrical days of the probe to date, full of partisan fury, genuine security violations, unclaimed pizza and several TV appearances likely to please the president.
Occupying a deposition room marked a dramatic escalation in the GOP’s effort to stop the impeachment inquiry. In the end, the Republicans managed to freeze the probe and steal the media narrative for five hours. But to do that, they broke long-standing bipartisan rules governing the most restricted area of the Capitol, where technology is forbidden so that lawmakers may review sensitive material without fear of surveillance.
The demonstration came a day after members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus met with Trump at the White House, where the president urged the group to be “tough,” according to Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn., who attended.
The unusual protest came on what was expected to be a calm day for the impeachment inquiry. Only one witness, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Laura Cooper, was scheduled to testify, and she was not expected to make much news. This account is based on interviews with more than 20 people familiar with the day’s events, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer candid details about what happened behind closed doors.
At 9:45 a.m., Gaetz and his group stood before microphones outside the secure area of the Capitol and decried “Soviet-style” tactics they said Democrats were embracing as part of their impeachment inquiry.
Several accused Democratic leaders of trying to undo the 2016 election result, rallying behind a talking point promoted by Trump and House GOP leaders.
“If behind those doors, they intend to overturn the result of an American presidential election, we want to know what’s going on,” said Gaetz, accusing Democrats of being “obsessed with attacking a president who we believe has not done anything to deserve impeachment.”
After several speakers made their case, the group moved past a set of double doors into the secure area, out of reporters’ view, and were met by two security guards. After stopping for a time, the group barged past into the deposition room with chants of “let us in.”
Then all hell broke loose, according to witnesses.
Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas — a Trump favorite who regularly defends the president on television — started shouting about “injustices against the president!”
Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Ala., who is running for Senate in his state, railed about the perceived unfairness of the Democrats’ decision to make the process private. Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., snapped back at Byrne, “There are no cameras here, so it won’t help your Senate campaign.”
Several of the protesting members entered the room with their cellphones, a major security breach, and started using them.
“Reporting from Adam Schiff’s secret chamber,” Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., wrote on Twitter just before noon, referring to the House Intelligence Committee chairman and de facto point man for the impeachment inquiry. Rep. Alex Mooney, R-W.Va., snapped and tweeted pictures of the scene.
Democrats were seething.
“They not only brought in their unauthorized bodies, they may have brought in the Russians and the Chinese with electronics into a secure space, which will require that the space at some point in time be desensitized,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., who sits on the Intelligence Committee.
Inside the room, Schiff, D-Calif., declared a violation of House rules. He warned Republicans he was “formally” notifying them that they were compromising the facility with their devices — an admonition that prompted one House Republican, longtime Intelligence Committee member Rep. Michael Conaway, R-Texas, to collect fellow Republicans’ phones.
With Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., more than an hour away attending the funeral of her brother in Baltimore, Democrats were without a leader. Schiff left to call the House Sergeant at Arms to discuss how to respond.
For a brief period, Democrats considered having the U.S. Capitol Police remove the Republicans. But they ultimately decided against it, determining that it would only further the GOP’s talking points.
In fact, several of the protesters were members of the committees involved in the impeachment inquiry — meaning they already had access to witnesses and the ability to cross-examine them.
“People have to see this for the total fraud that it is,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., who was there and remarked on what he characterized as the absurdity of some Republicans protesting despite their involvement in the witness interviews. “Their attempt to act like Freedom Riders is really an attack on the committee system in Congress … Obviously they’re just trying to shut it down.”
When Schiff walked to his office from the deposition room, three Republicans followed and made repeated entreaties to release the interview transcripts. Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio, Mark Meadows of North Carolina and Lee Zeldin of New York — all members of the panels leading the investigation — argued that it wasn’t fair that lawmakers are facing questions from constituents but lack access to the testimony to adequately respond.
Schiff, who has said he intends to release the transcripts at some point, told them the one transcript they did get to see was promptly leaked, though it was not clear what he meant. He refused to compromise.
That’s when Republicans returned to the deposition room and continued their sit-in. Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., an ex-police chief, told them they should be ashamed of themselves for defending a president like Trump. She even quoted from the Gospel of Mark: “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”
As the political drama unfolded, Cooper sat in a separate room, awaiting her testimony. Democrats and Republicans began to speculate that they may need to postpone her interview.
The GOP protest was striking because Republicans had used the very same space — and format — for their own politically sensitive investigations in the past. Just a few years ago, former congressman Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., led an investigation into the 2012 attacks on U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya, a probe Democrats derided as a witch hunt against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was then running for president.
During that investigation, Gowdy told then-Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., to leave a private deposition. Issa had tried to sit in and listen to testimony, though he was not on the committee running the probe.
At the time, Gowdy — as the Democrats have done now — defended the closed-door format as necessary to get honest information from witnesses.
“If you want to get on the news, then go rob a bank,” Gowdy told his colleagues in 2014 when they pushed him to have his Benghazi hearings in public.
As the protest dragged into the afternoon, Democrats privately began to fret about what they would do if Republicans refused to yield. Some questioned whether they would have to move their private investigation into the public sphere before they were ready.
Around 1:30 p.m., a cart with 15 large pizzas from Domino’s mysteriously appeared outside the secure area. It was unclear who paid for them, but Meadows, the conservative from North Carolina, encouraged the assembled reporters to partake.
“There is no quid pro quo. You can eat it!” he said. The press declined, noting that they cannot accept gifts from lawmakers, and soon the cart disappeared.
The protest petered out by 3 p.m., with several participants exiting the secure area to vote — and never coming back. This allowed Cooper’s testimony to resume.
House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., stated that by bringing cellphones into the secure room, the Republicans violated “the Oath all Members of Congress sign to gain access to classified information” and “security controls established by the [CIA] for the protection of classified information.”
“I am requesting you take action with respect to the Members involved in the breach,” Thompson, D-Miss., wrote in a letter to the House Sergeant at Arms.
Other Democrats tried to crack jokes at the GOP’s expense, arguing that the best way to respond to the protest was with humor.
Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., said he offered a Snickers bar to the animated GOP members who came in, with the candy’s “you’re not yourself” commercial in mind.
“I offered them a Snickers bar because you’re not yourself when you’re not eating,” he said. “I’m not sure it worked.”
The Washington Post’s Karoun Demirjian, Greg Jaffe and John Wagner contributed to this report.
Video: Democratic and Republican lawmakers addressed how a group of GOP members barged into a secure hearing room on Oct. 23. (The Washington Post)