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Impeachment news roundup: Oct. 23

Unauthorized Republicans storm secure room as Pentagon official Laura Cooper gives deposition about withheld military aid to Ukraine

Laura Cooper, deputy assistant secretary of Defense, arrives to the Capitol for a deposition related to the House's impeachment inquiry on Wednesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Laura Cooper, deputy assistant secretary of Defense, arrives to the Capitol for a deposition related to the House's impeachment inquiry on Wednesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

House impeachment investigators have begun questioning the top Pentagon official overseeing U.S. policy in Ukraine about millions in military aid President Donald Trump allegedly withheld from the country this summer.

Laura Cooper, the deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia, provided testimony at the Capitol, complying with a subpoena issued by House Intelligence Chairman Adam B. Schiff. The Defense Department had ordered Cooper not to testify, and her testimony was delayed several hours Wednesday by disruptions from other House members. 

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Democratic House investigators on Tuesday said they were shown a direct link between the withholding of military aid and requests for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to open up anti-corruption probes into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden as well as the Democratic National Committee.

That information came from the testimony of acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor, who defied orders from the Trump administration not to show up for his deposition.

Schiff told reporters that he was grateful Cooper is complying with the law and testifying before the committees despite the administration trying to block her and other witnesses from cooperating with the impeachment inquiry.

He largely declined to answer other questions, like whether he planned to file Ethics complaints against the Republicans that tried to storm the SCIF Thursday morning. He did say “yes” when asked if he was concerned about the integrity of the SCIF being compromised.

Here’s the latest on the impeachment investigation:

At long last…: “The deposition has begun,” an impeachment inquiry official said at approximately 3:30 p.m. Wednesday, roughly six hours after Cooper first arrived at the Capitol.

Cooper’s deposition was initially scheduled for 10 a.m. Wednesday but didn’t begin until afternoon because a cadre of House Republicans led by Minority Whip Steve Scalise and Rep. Matt Gaetz stormed the secure room in the Capitol Visitor Center where she was slated to testify.

Some of the GOP lawmakers — barred by Schiff from attending impeachment hearings because they are not on the three committees overseeing the probe — brought cell phones into the Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF), according to one Democratic lawmaker.

It’s a potential breach of a secure area where classified information is often shared.

No thanks: Other defense officials, including Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, have rejected congressional demands for information about their role in the White House decision to withhold millions in military aid to Ukraine.

Schiff issued a subpoena for Cooper’s testimony on Wednesday “in light of an attempt by the Department of Defense to direct … [her] not to appear for her scheduled deposition, and efforts by the Department of Defense to also limit any testimony that does occur,” the impeachment inquiry official said.

“As is required of her, DASD Laura Cooper is now complying with the subpoena and answering questions from both Democratic and Republican Members and staff,” the official said.

Victim-in-chief: Trump told the audience at a speech on energy policy in Pittsburgh that he is a victim of investigations aimed at bringing down his presidency.

“I have witch hunts every week,” he said. “I say, ‘What’s the witch hunt this week?’”

During official functions and at campaign events, Trump often portrays himself and his supporters, via their shared conservative ideology, as victims of a conspiracy against them all.

Behind closed doors: On Wednesday morning, the GOP members who proceeded to disrupt Cooper’s scheduled deposition were heard chanting “Let us in, let us in” behind the first set of secure doors separating the SCIF from the hallway where reporters and security personnel gathered.

The Republicans then stormed the SCIF, some bringing their cell phones with them, Democratic Reps. Ted Lieu and Harley Rouda of California said.

Schiff stood up and walked out, accompanied by Cooper, multiple Republicans later told reporters.

We’ll wait: The unauthorized Republican members remained in the SCIF for hours, well into the afternoon, to protest the impeachment proceedings. They abandoned the space to head to House votes just before 2 p.m.

House Republicans have criticized Schiff’s handling of the impeachment probe, claiming it has not been a transparent process and that Republicans have been treated unfairly. But Republicans from the three committees have had the same amount of time as their Democratic counterparts to ask witnesses questions.

Democrats have said that they are in the investigative stage of the impeachment process, which they are conducting behind closed doors so that witnesses can’t coordinate their testimony. Schiff has promised “transparency” toward the end of the investigative stage and once it is complete.

Security concerns: Democrats and security experts criticized the group of Republicans who forced their way into the SCIF on Wednesday for flouting security protocols when they brought their phones into the secure room.

“They violated House rules by trying to crash committees of which they don’t sit on,” said Lieu.

Oversight ranking member Jim Jordan dismissed the security concerns, saying it was “a mistake” and “no big deal” since many of the members do not routinely receive classified briefings in SCIFs.

“They shouldn’t do that. They understand now and it won’t happen again,” the Ohio Republican said of the members who brought in their phones.

Graham vs. House: Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham may introduce a resolution criticizing the House impeachment process’ secrecy, he told reporters Wednesday.

The South Carolina Republican said the process has been “unfair” to the president and said he would not comment on testimony selectively leaked by House Democrats.

“I think they are [leaking the testimony] to get his numbers down, but it just can’t be the end result,” Graham said. “I think the American people will rebel if they continue this process of impeachment behind closed doors.”

Again, Democrats have said they will provide the public access to all their depositions at a later date before they hold a vote on impeachment.

‘Never Trumpers’: Trump labeled Taylor, who offered the House panel leading the inquiry damning testimony about Trump’s Ukraine demands, a “Never Trumper Diplomat” — and implored his subordinates to only hire his supporters.

Taylor was handpicked in June by Trump’s own secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, to be the top U.S. envoy to Ukraine.

The president, in a tweet as he arrived in Pittsburgh for an energy speech, labeled anyone working for his administration who is not pro-Trump “worse than the Do Nothing Democrats. Nothing good will ever come from them!”

Cough ’em up: Ignoring a House subpoena issued last month, the State Department still has not turned up documents including meeting notes, emails, text messages, memos and diplomatic cables related to Ukraine and the military aid that the Trump administration withheld from it.

The chairs of the House Foreign Affairs, Intelligence and Oversight committees leading the impeachment inquiry sent a letter Wednesday to Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan identifying the documents in possession of the department relevant to the inquiry that have not been turned over to the panels.

The chairs described one document they’re aware of from recent witness testimony as “memoranda that document efforts to press Ukraine to initiate politically-motivated investigations to benefit President Trump and that raise concerns about false representations by the Department to the committees and that document efforts to intimidate or silence employees.”

The department is in “obstruction of the lawful functions of Congress and of the impeachment inquiry” by refusing to comply with the subpoena, the chairs wrote.

“Because the Committees have gathered evidence about the direct relevance of these documents, including highly significant information contained in these materials that pertain to allegations that the President abused the power of his office for personal political benefit, the Committees may draw the inference that their nonproduction indicates that these documents support the allegations against the President and others,” they wrote.

The White House has said it will not comply with the impeachment inquiry because it thinks it is illegitimate, but some State Department and other administration officials have testified before the panels, mostly under subpoena.

When in doubt, FOIA: Three Democratic senators are trying a new approach to try to get correspondence between the Justice Department and the White House about contacts with Ukraine and other foreign governments regarding President Donald Trump’s political opponents.

Senate Judiciary Committee members Kamala Harris of California, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island are sending a request under the Freedom of Information Act to Attorney General William Barr seeking any such documents.

The letter seeks release of documents pertaining to conversations with foreign governments about investigating Hunter Biden, the son of former Vice President Joe Biden, as well as any other political opponents of Trump that the administration may have wanted China or Ukraine to probe.

The letter, a copy of which was obtained by CQ Roll Call, also includes a long list of terms for which the three Democrats have requested documents, including multiple spellings of Zelenskiy’s name.

“Dems case is DEAD!”: Trump on Wednesday declared the case House Democrats appear to be building against him in their impeachment inquiry “DEAD!” He contended that Taylor, the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who testified Tuesday behind closed doors, failed to provide any information “that the Ukrainians were aware that military aid was being withheld.”

The president appeared to be, as he often does, watching Fox News Channel’s morning show as he tagged GOP Rep. John Ratcliffe and that program in his tweet. Trump added: “You can’t have a quid pro quo with no quo.” The president then again ignored laws designed to protect federal workers who point out misconduct when he wrote, “Where is the Whistleblower?”

“The Do Nothing Dems case is DEAD!” he concluded.

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Poll check: Approval among U.S. voters for the House impeachment inquiry into Trump has reached a new high of 55 percent in Quinnipiac University’s poll.

Forty-three percent of those surveyed disapproved of the impeachment inquiry.

Support for the investigation remains highly partisan, the poll found, with 93 percent of Democrats compared to 10 percent of Republicans approving of the House’s efforts. Independent voters approve of the inquiry 58-37 percent, the poll found.

“Republicans remain rock solid in opposing both the impeachment of President Trump and the House impeachment inquiry,” said Quinnipiac University polling analyst Mary Snow.

“But when it comes to the president’s motives in Ukraine, Republicans aren’t all on the same page. Roughly 7 in 10 Republicans say the president was pursuing the national interest in his dealings with Ukraine. The rest say he was pursuing his own personal interest or they don’t know,” Snow said.

In a Qunnipiac poll released last week, 51 percent of those surveyed approved of impeachment and 45 percent disapproved.

Let’s see the transcripts: House Foreign Affairs ranking member Michael McCaul sent a letter Tuesday to Intelligence Chairman Adam B. Schiff demanding he provide Foreign Affairs members access to transcripts of the depositions from the impeachment inquiry. The letter, signed by all 21 Republicans on Foreign Affairs, responded to a communication from Schiff’s staff that said committee members would only have access to the transcripts during designated hours under supervision of a Democratic Intelligence Committee staffer.

“Foreign Affairs is an intelligence-receiving committee with a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF), a classified computer system, and a full-time non-partisan Security Officer. There is no legitimate reason to deny us the transcripts,” McCaul wrote. “I urge you to remedy this procedural injustice immediately, so that I am not forced to pursue public efforts to correct it, including by seeking a privileged vote on the House floor.”

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