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 TrumpTrump denies telling Bolton Ukraine aid was tied to investigations Former senior Senate GOP aide says Republicans should call witnesses Title, release date revealed for Bolton memoir 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 RoudaSan Francisco mayor endorses Bloomberg Rep. Bobby Rush endorses Bloomberg's White House bid Sanders, Warren battle for progressive endorsements 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) MalinowskiSanders, Warren battle for progressive endorsements NJ lawmaker flips endorsement to Biden after Booker drops out House votes to temporarily repeal Trump SALT deduction cap 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) GaetzGaetz in Twitter battle with Florida House Republican Apple under pressure to unlock Pensacola shooter's phones Conservatives slam Warren's call to put transgender women in women's prisons 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 PalmerTrump takes pulse of GOP on Alabama Senate race GOP protest overshadows impeachment hearing Republicans storm closed-door hearing to protest impeachment inquiry 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 RaskinBiden leads 2020 pack in congressional endorsements House Oversight committee asks DHS for information on family separation Maryland Rep. Raskin endorses Warren ahead of Iowa caucus 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 ZeldinSchiff pushes back: Defense team knows Trump is guilty Jeffries, Nadler showcase different NY styles in Trump trial DCCC to run ads tying 11 House Republicans to Trump remarks on entitlements 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 McCarthyThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump trial begins with clashes, concessions Cheney's decision not to run for Senate sparks Speaker chatter Mark Mellman: A failure of GOP leadership 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 LynchBiden leads 2020 pack in congressional endorsements Election security, ransomware dominate cyber concerns for 2020 Hillicon Valley: Groups file appeal over net neutrality ruling | Lawmakers raise concerns over foreign apps | Payroll data stolen from Facebook 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.”