GOP protest overshadows impeachment hearing

House Republicans stormed a closed-door hearing Wednesday to protest the Democrats’ swift-moving impeachment inquiry, captivating Capitol Hill and delaying the deposition of a top Pentagon official who later testified about President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden campaign: Trump and former vice president will have phone call about coronavirus Esper: Military personnel could help treat coronavirus patients 'if push comes to shove' Schumer calls for military official to act as medical equipment czar MORE’s dealings with Ukraine.

Roughly 20 GOP members charged into the secure space in the Capitol basement where three House committees were set to interview Laura Cooper, a career Defense official who oversees Ukraine, as part of the House investigation into whether Trump sought help from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to boost his own reelection in 2020.

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“They crashed the party,” said Rep. Harley RoudaHarley Edwin RoudaDemocrat Harley Rouda advances in California House primary Let engineers make engineering decisions on local infrastructure projects EPA pushes back on Oversight review of ethics program MORE (D-Calif.), a member of the Oversight and Reform Committee, one of three House panels leading the impeachment probe.

Even for a Capitol accustomed to chaos, the protest was a remarkable escalation of the partisan battle royal surrounding the impeachment investigation, pitting Democrats accusing the president of abusing his powers against Trump’s Republican allies, who say the whole process is designed to sink Trump’s reelection chances next year.

Where the Democrats sense high crimes and misdemeanors, Republicans smell naked politics.

“All of us already know that this is a sham process that the Democrats are using for the 2020 elections. It’s Russian collusion 2.0, which was a total hoax,” said Rep. Mo BrooksMorris (Mo) Jackson BrooksRepublican group asks 'what is Trump hiding' in Times Square billboard Conservative group hits White House with billboard ads: 'What is Trump hiding?' Trump takes pulse of GOP on Alabama Senate race MORE (R-Ala.), who participated in the sit-in. “They used it to gain House seats in the 2018 elections, and they’re pulling out the same playbook in 2020.”

The protest quickly triggered a wave of frustration among Democrats, who called it a political diversion to distract from damaging testimony William Taylor, a top diplomat to Ukraine, gave the committees Tuesday.

“This is a pathetic stunt. They are storming a castle that they already occupied,” said Rep. Tom MalinowskiThomas (Tom) MalinowskiDemocrats eye remote voting options Hispanic Caucus campaign arm unveils non-Hispanic endorsements Safety in sick leave MORE (D-N.J.), a former State Department official. “It is impossible to understand this from a rational point of view other than there was devastating testimony against the president.”

Republicans who took part in the “storm the SCIF” group led by Trump ally Rep. Matt GaetzMatthew (Matt) GaetzHarris knocks Gaetz for taking issue with money for Howard in relief package Critics hit Florida governor over lack of 'sweeping' coronavirus response Gaetz accuses Burr of 'screwing all Americans' with stock sale MORE (R-Fla.) did the demonstration to loudly protest the process in which Democrats have been conducting their impeachment inquiry — behind closed doors, limiting members’ access to transcripts, without an impeachment vote by the full House, and without giving Republicans the power to subpoena their own witnesses.

“As a member of Congress, I think I have the right to see the evidence. If we are going to vote on something that is as consequential as this is, I think every member of Congress has the right to see the evidence, and we should go where the evidence leads us,” said Rep. Gary PalmerGary James PalmerTop GOP post on Oversight draws stiff competition Trump takes pulse of GOP on Alabama Senate race GOP protest overshadows impeachment hearing MORE (Ala.), a member of Republican leadership. “It is an extraordinary thing to do something like that, but there is a limit to the secrecy, there has to be.”

Still, some GOP staffers who are on panels overseeing the impeachment probe privately voiced concern that by violating the secure room process, Republicans were undermining their argument that Democrats were flouting the proper procedure for impeachment.

And Democrats were quick to point out that, under House rules, the closed-door depositions are limited to members — Republicans and Democrats — of the three committees leading the investigation: Intelligence, Oversight and Reform, and Foreign Affairs.

“Their attempt to act like Freedom Riders is really an attack on the committee system in Congress,” said Rep. Jamie RaskinJamin (Jamie) Ben Raskin20 House Dems call on Trump to issue two-week, nationwide shelter-in-place order Senators urge Congress to include election funds in coronavirus stimulus Vote at home saves our democracy and saves lives MORE (D-Md.). “Essentially, they’re saying that 535 members should be in that room. Obviously, they’re just trying to shut it down.”

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The five-hour protest came to an end just after 3 p.m., shortly after the House Sergeant at Arms, Paul Irving, was seen going alone into the secure room. It doesn’t appear that Republicans won any concessions, however, and some GOP lawmakers are already suggesting they’ll protest future depositions if Republicans aren’t granted more powers.

“I would imagine that things will get worse, not better, if the process doesn’t improve,” said Rep. Lee ZeldinLee ZeldinSanders: 'Unfair to simply say everything is bad' in Cuba under Castro Trump allies blast Romney over impeachment vote: 'A sore loser' Overnight Health Care — Presented by Partnership for America's Health Care Future — Democrats seek to preempt Trump message on health care | E-cigarette executives set for grilling | Dems urge emergency funding for coronavirus MORE (R-N.Y.), a Trump defender who has loudly criticized the impeachment inquiry.

The committee subpoenaed Cooper for her testimony after the Department of Defense sought to direct her not to appear for her scheduled deposition and in order to prevent the Pentagon from seeking to limit her closed-door testimony, according to an official working on the impeachment inquiry.

Democrats hope Cooper, who has worked in the federal government for almost two decades, can shed light on any role the Pentagon played in withholding aid to Ukraine.

Her testimony comes a day after Taylor offered what Democrats described as some of the most damaging testimony yet — in which the top diplomatic official to Ukraine linked the administration’s decision to withhold roughly $400 million in aid to demands for politically motivated investigations.

Republicans have sought to downplay Taylor’s testimony, saying he relayed mostly secondhand information as it related to an alleged quid pro quo. They also have argued that there could not be a quid pro quo if Kiev was not aware that the aid was withheld.

“Name me one thing that Ukraine did to release the money. Nothing,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyOn The Money: House Dems push huge jobs project in wake of coronavirus | Trump leans on businesses in virus response | Lawmakers press IRS to get relief checks to seniors Democrats push for green infrastructure provisions in next coronavirus package House Democrats push huge jobs project in wake of coronavirus MORE (R-Calif.) said. “To have a quid pro quo, you have to exchange one side for another thing.”

Democrats, however, say that while the quid pro quo is important, they believe the president asking Ukraine to interfere in the 2020 presidential election is enough.

“A quid pro quo is not required,” said Rep. Stephen LynchStephen Francis LynchMA lawmakers press HHS secretary on status of state's protective equipment Democrats press World Bank chief on meeting with Ukrainian president amid Trump pressure Biden leads 2020 pack in congressional endorsements MORE (D-Mass.), who says he “definitely” believes there was one. “However, merely soliciting a foreign government to do a political hit job on your political opponent in a U.S. election is a violation of [the law]. So, quid pro quo is really a canard. That is a straw man. It’s not relevant to the discussion.”