WASHINGTON — A group of Republicans put the “Storm Area 51” logic to the test Wednesday and barged into a secure area on Capitol Hill, interrupting a private impeachment deposition and occupying the space for a few hours.
Led by Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican known for his long history of made-for-TV antics, the band of about two dozen lawmakers entered the Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF), an area where members can review classified information and hold private hearings. It’s a wild escalation after weeks of complaints — from Republicans who aren’t on the committees investigating impeachment — about being cut out of the impeachment process.
Notably, according to a list provided by Gaetz's office of the Republicans who RSVP'd to join the protest, 12 of them are members of the Oversight or Foreign Affairs committees — including Rep. Jim Jordan, the ranking member on the Oversight Committee — meaning they have been allowed to sit in on all depositions held in the SCIF in recent weeks. A spokesperson for Rep. Ken Buck, who is on the list and serves on the Foreign Affairs Committee, however, later clarified that he did not attend, though he tweeted in support.
Rep. Fred Keller, an Oversight member who joined the protest, "was acting in solidarity with those members of Congress who are not allowed in the hearings, to review testimony, or read transcripts of this secret inquiry. ... [He] believes the way this inquiry is being conducted is unfair and it needs to stop," according to a spokesperson.
President Donald Trump knew in advance that Republicans planned to occupy the space and supported their plan, “saying he wanted the transcripts released because they will exonerate him,” Bloomberg reported, citing four sources familiar with the conversation.
The members went into the SCIF at about 9:45 a.m. Wednesday, passing Capitol Police officers who guard the door. Some of the members brought in cellphones (which are not allowed in the secure space). Most of them emerged around 2:15 p.m. ahead of a scheduled House vote, but Gaetz said as he left that several Republicans were still inside. By about 3 p.m., the Republicans were gone.
Asked if the group would continue to storm the private depositions, Gaetz wouldn’t say, but said they would “continue to advocate for transparency.”
The GOP invasion prevented Republicans and Democrats on the three committees leading the impeachment investigation from starting their interview with Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Laura Cooper, who was scheduled to begin a deposition Wednesday morning. The committees were able to begin interviewing Cooper on Wednesday afternoon after the protesting Republicans left.
Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly, who was inside the SCIF at the time, said he saw 20 Republicans facing down just two security guards. He said that rather than try to eject the members, House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff and the House sergeant-at-arms decided to wait them out so as to not escalate the situation.
“They were quite intimidating by shouting and screaming and saying, ‘Let us in,’” said Connolly. “It was actually very threatening to be there. I was frankly worried about where this was going to head.”
When the other Republican members entered, Gaetz said, Democrats “took their marbles and went home.” Pressed on what that meant, he got into an elevator with several other Freedom Caucus members and left.
Rep. Alex Mooney, a Republican from West Virginia, made an audio recording while in the SCIF, which he tweeted just before 2 p.m. In it, he says he is calling from a secure line within the SCIF and that about 30 Republicans, including Rep. Steve Scalise, the number two House Republican, were sitting inside with him. All Democrats, Mooney said, had left.
"The moment we walked into the room, Chairman Adam Schiff saw us, took the witness, and walked out of the room because they refuse to have a hearing in a transparent way," he said. "I represent over 600,000 people in West Virginia who are not given the right to know what's being said in the hearings as they brazenly attempt for no reason to impeach the president of the United States."
The protest Wednesday is the latest in a line of complaints from GOP lawmakers, who have argued that they are being cut out of the impeachment inquiry and that Democrats are holding hearings in secret. That’s not the case.
While the hearings have not been public, they have not been “secret.” Members of both parties on the committees holding the hearings — Oversight, Intelligence, and Foreign Affairs — have been able to attend the depositions and ask questions.
Rep. David Cicilline, a Democrat, told reporters he believed the move by Republican lawmakers was an effort to stop the interview with Cooper in the SCIF on Wednesday.
“We are collecting really important evidence the underscores the great misconduct of this president,” Cicilline said. “It’s not a coincidence that [Republicans] met with the president, [who] complained, ‘You’re not doing enough.'”
Republicans took their phones inside the SCIF on Wednesday and tweeted while inside, a major violation of congressional rules. Around lunchtime, they ordered pizza and Chick-fil-A sandwiches. They also ordered pizza for the large gathering of reporters outside the room, which went largely untouched.
“It’s a bunch of Freedom Caucus members having pizza around a conference table pretending to be brave,” Rep. Tom Malinowski, a Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee, told reporters Wednesday. “All they basically did here was to storm a castle that they already occupied.”
Rep. John Yarmuth, a Democrat who participated in the 2016 sit-in to protest gun control was a little more empathetic. “I understand what motivates them. It’s a great deal of frustration being in the minority,” Yarmuth told BuzzFeed News on his way to votes. He added that it was a clear violation of rules when Republicans took their phones into the SCIF.
An Intelligence Committee official said in a statement that Republicans bringing in their phones was a “major security breach,” adding, “They engage in this circus-like behavior because they can’t defend the President’s egregious misconduct.”
The official said argued Republicans pulled off the “stunt” in order to appease Trump and distract from “devastating testimony” by Bill Taylor, the acting US ambassador to Ukraine, the day before.
Mieke Eoyang, a former Democratic House Intelligence Committee staffer, tweeted Wednesday that storming the SCIF and taking in cellphones amounted to a serious national security issue.
“[T]he SCIF itself is a secure facility designed to prevent electronic eavesdropping so members of Congress can receive highly classified information about how the nation collects information on its adversaries, and on *very* sensitive intelligence operations,” she wrote. “Foreign adversaries are constantly trying to figure out what goes on inside those rooms to figure out what the US knows about them, to out US high-level sources in their governments, to know what the US government knows and use it against us.”
Late Tuesday night, Republicans on the House Foreign Affairs Committee signed a letter urging Schiff to allow them to receive copies of transcripts of the closed-door hearings, claiming it is “outrageous and unjustifiable to deny us those basic documents.”
Rep. Kathleen Rice, a Democrat and former prosecutor, said in an interview with BuzzFeed News on Tuesday that she wanted the public to know the process is standard.
“This rhetoric coming out of the White House about the procedure that's being followed right now being irregular is complete garbage,” she said. “Ken Starr did not hold public hearings when he was doing the investigation into Bill Clinton. Everything was done the way most investigations are done, in private away from the public.”
Paul McLeod and Kadia Goba contributed reporting to this story.
There were 12 Republicans serving on the impeachment committees who RSVP’d to the event, but not all of them attended. An earlier version of this post misstated how many of them took part in the protest.
This story was updated to note that several of the Republican protesters serve on the committees involved in the impeachment inquiry.