WASHINGTON — Utah Congressman Chris Stewart says angry GOP lawmakers who stormed into a closed-door impeachment inquiry meeting of the House Intelligence Committee this week will do it again if Democrats don’t give Republicans more access to the proceedings.
“We have written (Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif.) a letter where we’re asking for him to quit restricting our ability to look at the transcripts and a number of other things,” said Stewart, who sits on the committee.
But Stewart may not be there to open the door for his Republican colleagues as he inadvertently did Wednesday.
The Utah Republican was coming down the spiral stairway to the basement of the Capitol Building Visitor Center on his way to an impeachment inquiry hearing just as a press conference was wrapping up.
After several of his fellow Republicans had taken turns blasting Democrats for holding the hearings behind closed doors, Florida Republican Matt Gaetz pointed his thumb over his shoulder to the double doors behind him.
“We’re going to go. Let’s see if we can get inside,” Gaetz said as about two dozen GOP House members applauded then turned toward the entrance of the SCIF, a room secured for review of classified information. A red sign announced: “Restricted Area. No public or media access. Cameras or recording devices prohibited without proper authorization.”
“Just as a coincidence of timing, I opened the door and they all followed me in,” Stewart said. “I guess I sprung the cat.”
The lawmakers stormed the SCIF, where a shouting match reportedly ensued between them and a committee member. Schiff adjourned the meeting and about a dozen of the GOP protesters refused to leave until they were called to the House floor for a vote, delaying the committee hearing for about five hours.
Erupting a day after reports of damning testimony against the president emerged from a similar closed hearing, Wednesday’s dramatic standoff was emblematic of how partisan maneuvering can poison a process laid out in the Constitution to root out wrong doing in the executive branch, including the president, according to experts and scholars on congressional procedures and process.
“Instead of defending the process and expressing skepticism of the charges, you have people trying to make the process toxic by saying it’s somehow illegitimate,” said James Wallner, a senior fellow at R Street Institute and a scholar on congressional procedure who teaches political science and government at American University.
‘You need to be scared’
The impeachment inquiry was launched last month after a whistleblower complaint raised questions about whether President Donald Trump withheld military aid and offered an invitation to the White House as ways to pressure Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy into investigating the family of Joe Biden, a potential political rival to Trump in the 2020 election.
William Taylor, U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, offered testimony Tuesday that countered the White House narrative that there was “no quid pro quo” in which Trump held up military aid to advance his political interests. Trump wanted to put Ukraine’s leader “in a public box,” Taylor recalled.
Apart from Stewart opening the door, none of the Republicans in Utah’s congressional delegation participated in Wednesday’s storming of the secured room where the House Intelligence Committee was hearing from Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Laura Cooper on how aid to Ukraine is managed.
This committee has become a target for Republican ire of an unfair, secret process to take down Trump, as the panel has been especially active in the inquiry while continuing to operate under its normal rules, intended to protect classified information.
Democrats, who point to GOP outrage as proof the case to impeach the president is gaining strength and public support, accused the Republicans who barged into the meeting of breaching national security when they brought their cell phones into the SCIF and used them to tweet about their protest.
A SCIF, or sensitive compartmented information facility, is a specially constructed space where classified information can be viewed securely within an otherwise public building, under strict protocols. Members of Congress are generally familiar with these protocols, which apply to all classified briefings.
Stewart called Wednesday’s mayhem caused by his GOP colleagues “unfortunate.”
“One of the real concerns that I have is how divided our country is, and this is evidence of that,” he said. “But I am absolutely sympathetic and I encourage this idea that we can’t just sit passively back and say it’s OK with the way things are going right now. It’s just not.”
Republicans, Trump and conservative commentators have a long list of complaints about the impeachment inquiry. Among their demands are a House vote on a resolution that would detail how the inquiry would be carried out. They want all the hearings to be public. They want transcripts of the closed hearings available to all lawmakers. And they want to know the president’s accusers, primarily the whistleblower.
On Thursday, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., introduced a resolution condemning how the House is handling the inquiry. “We’re not telling the House they can’t impeach the president,” Graham said. “What we’re telling the House is, there’s a right way to do it, and a wrong way to do it.”
He said he has 41 cosponsors, including Sen. Mike Lee of Utah. Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, the most outspoken Republican against Trump, is not among them. He said would take a look at it and would like a House inquiry vote and a more open process.
But the fiery rhetoric unleashed at Wednesday’s news conference signaled a larger goal that goes beyond tinkering with process: turning public sentiment. Recent polling showed 50%-58% support for a House impeachment inquiry, while support for Senate trial to remove the president ranges from 43%-50%, according to Politico.
“Since day one, the Democrats have not accepted the fact that Donald J. Trump is president of the United States,” declared Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Ga. “Now we find them sitting here behind closed doors trying to impeach a sitting president. Ladies and gentleman if a government can do this to the president of the United States they can do it to you as well. You need to be scared. You need to be very scared.”
But some 300 legal scholars signed an open letter to Congress this week, explaining the House impeachment inquiry is legitimate and legal under the Constitution.
“We urge the House to act expeditiously, while providing the President and those in the Executive Branch a full and fair opportunity to be heard,” they wrote. “This, however, does not include the right of the President, or the public, to know the identity of the whistleblower. Federal law explicitly provides for secrecy of whistleblowers precisely so they will come forward and report wrong-doing.”
BYU law professor Fred Gedicks told the Deseret News that he signed the letter to send the message that “the House has the sole power of impeachment, and it can generate and use any procedure it likes. It doesn’t have to have a vote and it’s not a court of law, so the decisions of prior Houses are not binding on the current House.”
Casey Burgat, a senior fellow at R Street Institute with an expertise in House operations and procedure, said past Houses did vote on a resolution outlining how the process would move forward. But that’s not required.
“They can offer articles of impeachment for an up or down vote anytime they want,” Burgat said.
He explained that a vote authorizing the House to conduct an impeachment inquiry can establish special conditions for committees handling the inquiry, assigning more staff to those committees conducting the investigation. Subpoena powers are more stringent and any constitutional questions are usually expedited through the courts.
In past impeachments of presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, the resolution created bipartisan committees with an equal number from each party on the panel to conduct the inquiry, which at least gave the appearance the process would be fair, Wallner said. Under normal rules, majority party members would outnumber minority members in standing committees.
But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., hasn’t held that vote to provide political cover for Democrats who represent Republican leaning districts where Trump is popular, Burgat said. Utah Democrat Ben McAdams is among those vulnerable Democrats.
“They are not as gung-ho about impeachment and she’s protecting them from taking a vote that will be conflated, rightly or wrongly, with wanting to impeach the president,” Burgat said.
In fact, the inquiry is an investigation into allegations and the only vote the House has to take in the process is to accept or reject the charges resulting from the inquiry.
“Impeachment is not, to be clear, the removal of corrupt presidents or other officials, but simply the adoption of charges by the House, triggering a trial in the Senate,” wrote Ed Kilgore, explaining the process in New York magazine.
Only two presidents have been impeached by the House, Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998. Both were acquitted by the Senate, which must hold a trial presided over by the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Antics don’t help
When Pelosi announced the inquiry in September without voting on a resolution, that allowed the regular rules that govern House committees, which are controlled by the majority party, to remain in place, Burgat said. That’s why the House Intelligence Committee can meet in a SCIF as it often does, because it deals in classified information and the chairman can restrict access to the information disclosed in the hearings.
Schiff has said closed-door hearings are necessary to prevent witnesses from concealing the truth or coordinating their testimony, and he has promised to release the transcripts when it will not affect the investigation. The New York Times reported that Democrats also plan to hold open hearings after witnesses have been deposed.
But Stewart is skeptical of the Democrats’ promises to hold open hearings and release the transcripts to all members of Congress. His understanding is that the House Intelligence Committee will issue a report of its findings and not entire transcripts.
“If these hearings supported the argument that this president should be impeached and removed from office, I promise you they would be held in public,” Stewart said. He believes the initial public hearing on the whistleblower complaint went so badly, Democrats decided to close the proceedings.
Indeed, both sides of the House have accused each other of political posturing.
A committee official told the Deseret News that it’s not a coincidence that Wednesday’s events took place the day after “devastating testimony” by Ambassador Taylor. The official added that GOP lawmakers performed “the stunt in service of the president’s demand that they ‘fight harder’ to obstruct a legitimate impeachment inquiry.”
“They engage in this circus-like behavior because they can’t defend the president’s egregious misconduct,” the official said.
Stewart said that during Wednesday’s delay, GOP members of the committee talked with Schiff about their concerns over how the inquiry was being conducted.
“We said, ‘Look, Adam, this may be within the rules of the committee, but that’s not the relevant question. The question is, is that a good idea?’ And I don’t think it is,” Stewart said. He said House members have sent a letter to Schiff outlining their concerns and addressing those could head off another display of protest like what happened this week.
Wallner agreed that Democrats could blunt their opponents’ talking point of secrecy that fueled this week’s mayhem by addressing Republicans’ concerns about the process. But that may not serve the Democrats’ interest in garnering support for their inquiry and a possible vote to impeach.
“Antics like today probably only help Pelosi and Democrats get the votes among Democratic members who are uncertain right now to impeach,” he said. “It doesn’t seem like these kind of antics would sway wavering lawmakers in the other direction.”