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Why Did Republicans Storm a Closed Impeachment Hearing?

The Republican congressmembers’ bizarre breach of protocol lasted five hours.

Republican lawmakers stormed a closed hearing room Wednesday, disrupting the House impeachment investigation into President Donald Trump and delaying a Pentagon official’s testimony. In an extraordinary chain of events, dozens of Republican congressmembers pushed into a secure hearing room as Laura Cooper, the U.S. defense official who oversees Ukraine and Russia matters, was due to testify. A five-hour stand-off ensued. The spectacle unfolded one day after Tuesday’s explosive testimony by William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine. Taylor told congressional lawmakers that the Trump administration held up $391 million in aid to Ukraine for the purpose of pushing Ukraine to incriminate Trump’s political rivals, particularly presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden. We go to Capitol Hill to speak with Mitch Jeserich, the host of Letters & Politics heard on KPFA and Pacifica Radio. And we speak with retired colonel and Vietnam War veteran Andrew Bacevich, co-founder of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Republican lawmakers stormed a closed hearing room Wednesday, disrupting the House impeachment investigation into President Donald Trump and delaying a Pentagon official’s testimony. In an extraordinary chain of events, dozens of Republican congressmembers pushed into a secure hearing room as Laura Cooper, the U.S. defense official who oversees Ukraine and Russia matters, was due to testify. A five-hour standoff ensued. This is Kansas Republican Representative Roger Marshall being questioned by reporters.

REP. ROGER MARSHALL: So we just all — maybe 15, 20 Republicans, maybe 30 of us, the whip — led us in there, to the Star [sp] room. Schiff walks out. They all walk out. They’re not gonna let us hear anything. This whole thing is a sham…Now we’re just in there yelling and screaming at each other. If this was out open and transparent, then the American public can see exactly what’s going on. That’s all we’re wanting, is we want this to be transparent.

REPORTER: What did Chairman Schiff say?

REP. ROGER MARSHALL: Nothing. He doesn’t have the guts to come talk to us! He does not have the guts to talk to us. He left. He just got up and left. He doesn’t have the guts to tell us why we can’t come in the room, why he doesn’t want this to be transparent. It’s the biggest facade, the biggest farce I’ve ever seen in my life.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Laura Cooper was finally able to testify once the protest ended. California Democrat Eric Swalwell addressed Wednesday’s dramatic events.

REP. ERIC SWALWELL: But the tactics are in an effort to delay the inevitable. They are a response to just damaging and pulverizing testimony yesterday from a courageous Ambassador [inaudible] Bill Taylor. But they will not stop us in pursuing the truth.

AMY GOODMAN: The former presidential candidate, Congressmember Swalwell, was referring to Tuesday’s explosive testimony by William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine. Taylor told congressional lawmakers that the Trump administration held up $391 million in aid to Ukraine for the purpose of pushing Ukraine to incriminate Trump’s political rivals, particularly Joe Biden.

In Taylor’s opening statement, which has been made public, he laid out his interactions with Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union. He’s a wealthy Oregon hotel magnate with no diplomatic experience who received the ambassadorship after donating $1 million to Trump’s inauguration. Taylor says Ambassador Sondland told him that everything, including security assistance, was dependent on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announcing an investigation into Burisma, the gas company where Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, was a board member. Taylor’s testimony offers the most damning evidence so far in the ongoing impeachment inquiry.

For more, we’re joined by Mitch Jeserich, host of Letters and Politics heard on KPFA and around Pacifica Radio, and a Capitol Hill correspondent. Still with us, Andrew Bacevich, cofounder of The Quincy Institute, the new Washington anti-war think tank, who recently wrote a piece for TomDispatch headlined The real cover-up: Putting Donald Trump’s impeachment in context.

But Mitch, let’s go to you first. You’re right there on Capitol Hill. Talk about the latest in the impeachment inquiry, the takeover of this room yesterday by this group of Republican mainly men, and also the significance of Bill Taylor’s testimony.

MITCH JESERICH: Let’s begin with what happened yesterday at the SCIF room is what they call it, and that stands for Sensitive Compartment [sic] Information Facility. And Amy, it’s just as it sounds. It’s a very secured room where briefings behind closed doors, with usually highly classified information, occurs. True story, I was even told as I was down there outside the room not even to point my microphone in the direction of the doors.

And it’s again, as it would sound, a highly secured impenetrable room that Republicans, about 40 of them, who weren’t supposed to really go in there, were able to penetrate, and as you said in the introduction, ended up delaying the testimony of Laura Cooper of the Pentagon for about five hours. After about five hours, Laura Cooper was able to give her deposition behind closed doors. It only lasted about three hours, one of the shorter depositions that have occurred so far. They wanted to talk to Laura Cooper about what she knew from the Pentagon’s angle concerning the withholding of the $391 million of military aid to Ukraine in exchange for these investigations that Rudy Giuliani was pushing Ukraine to do in order to get a meeting with President Trump.

So this whole process occurred. It was pretty extraordinary. It really was an act of civil disobedience by Republicans. I’ve covered, in the years past, Congress on a day-to-day basis, and I have never seen something like that happen. If you would have told me something like what happened yesterday would have happened — if you would have told me ten years ago that would happen on the Hill, especially by Republicans, I would have never believed it.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about the significance of Bill Taylor’s testimony, the top U.S. diplomat, the man who was brought in. And talk about who he is. He didn’t even want to be the top diplomat in Ukraine, but the Trump Administration convinced him to do it.

MITCH JESERICH: Mike Pompeo convinced him to do it. You’re absolutely correct about that. William Taylor is a long-time foreign diplomat. He has worked under different administrations in the past, very much a part of U.S. foreign policy for many years. We say that he led the embassy in Ukraine, not that he was the ambassador. And that’s significant because he was appointed on an interim basis to replace Marie Yovanovitch, who was the ambassador to Ukraine, but she was recalled by Donald Trump.

And this is important, because Marie Yovanovitch was very critical of the Ukrainian prosecutor that Giuliani and Trump wanted to investigate both the Bidens as well as this theory that Ukraine was actually behind the theft of the DNC emails. And it has been reported that Marie Yovanovitch had a very strained relationship with this prosecutor. She accused him of corruption and he didn’t like her whatsoever. So the Trump administration had Maria Yovanovitch recalled. She was replaced by William Taylor.

Now, William Taylor is important because you will remember a couple of weeks ago, we got the transcripts of text messages between William Taylor, Gordon Sondland and Kurt Volker about trying to create a public meeting between Ukrainian President Zelensky and Donald Trump. And it is William Taylor, you will recall, in these text messages, that was raising the alarm. “Are we withholding $391 million in order to force these investigations for political gain for the president?” He was the one that was raising the alarm. We’ve had those text messages.

What he did on Tuesday at the deposition is he filled in some of the other blanks of what happened with actual phone calls that occurred and meetings that occurred. And he painted a picture that it was very much a quid pro quo and not just for the military aid and not just for the meeting with Donald Trump. He painted a picture that the entire relationship with Ukraine was on the line over these investigations.

And that is really significant, because we know that Ukraine has basically been perhaps in a low-level civil war ever since 2014, in which the United States is on one side and obviously Russia is on the other side. And so to put — to suggest, anyways, that the entire relationship with Ukraine, with the current government, could be on the line if these investigations did not happen, seems to be pretty significant.

AMY GOODMAN: And Gordon Sondland — who he is, this Oregon hotel magnate and real estate developer who becomes the U.S. ambassador to the European Union? Talk about his role in all of this and his testimony.

MITCH JESERICH: Gordon Sondland plays an important role because — and this is something that William Taylor also said on Tuesday — there became two tracks of foreign policy concerning Ukraine within the administration. One, the more official one that went through the State Department, that went through people like William Taylor and other diplomats. Another one that was spearheaded by Rudy Giuliani and also Gordon Sondland.

Gordon Sondland was the one who started coming in and pushing the conditions — in order to have a meeting, a public meeting between Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, that that would be conditioned on these two investigations. Not just the investigations occurring, but they wanted Zelensky to publicly say that there would be an investigation both into again the Bidens as well as into the theft of the DNC emails.

So Gordon Sondland, who as you indicated, is the ambassador of the European Union, became the point person for the president. He was asked by other diplomats, “Who are you to tell us to do anything?” And he said, “Well, it is coming straight from the president.” Important to note that Gordon Sondland is the ambassador of the European Union; Ukraine is not a member of the European Union.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: I want to bring Professor Andrew Bacevich back into the discussion. Professor Bacevich, if you could comment on what you think this impeachment inquiry is about? You wrote a piece recently for LobeLog headlined The Real Cover-Up. What is the real cover-up?

ANDREW BACEVICH: First, if I could just very briefly say that Bill Taylor turns out — he is a West Point classmate of mine, and I know him to be a person of impeccable character. And I have to tell you how proud it makes me feel that my classmate has stood up and told the truth at this important juncture of our history. I’m just sort of sitting here busting my buttons in admiration of him.

But what is really going on — at some level, of course, what is going on is this pattern of misconduct by Trump and the people around him. He is the worst president in our history. The sooner he leaves office, the better. If he loved our country, he would simply resign, and go to Mar-a-Lago and never be seen again. But he won’t do that.

The point of the piece that you referred to, however, is let us — it’s important to acknowledge the extent that there are many sources of corruption that compromise our democracy, and one of them is the foreign money. In the piece you alluded to, I talk about the millions and millions of dollars that the government of Saudi Arabia spends on an annual basis trying to influence people in Washington, D.C. It is sort of honest graft, but it is graft. It’s contemptible. And so I hope that if we are in some vague way embarked upon an effort to cleanse our politics, that we will take a look at the influence of foreign money in our politics on a daily basis.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Professor Bacevich, what about the criticism that has been made that this impeachment inquiry isn’t really about Ukraine, but it is really about, as Professor Sam Moyn of Yale University has said, that Trump’s rise, his success in beating Clinton within the appalling rules of the American game — that’s really what has been the affront.

ANDREW BACEVICH: I think Professor Moyn is exactly right. Again, there are multiple layers of meaning here, and it is difficult, I think, for us to appreciate what they are and how they interact. But Moyn’s point, and I agree with Moyn’s point, is that the election of Donald Trump symbolized a rejection of what Moyn refers to as centrism. And I take that word in this context to mean the underlying bipartisan view of the Republicans and the Democrats that expresses itself in many ways. It expresses itself in support of corporate capitalism. It expresses itself in support for a quasi-imperialistic foreign policy. It expresses itself in militarism. And Trump’s election — not Trump himself, but his election — exposed the extent to which many millions of our fellow citizens have rejected that bipartisan centrism. And the centrists in both parties are determined to restore themselves to their usual place in American politics.
That, too, is one of the things that’s going on here.

AMY GOODMAN: We just have 15 seconds, and Mitch Jeserich, I want to go back to you at Capitol Hill. The November discussion now, the possibility that the hearings will become open in November, what does that mean? What is next?

MITCH JESERICH: What is happening right now are the depositions, and these depositions are these three committees that are working on this trying to get the testimony of the people that are coming and testify. Apparently, once this process is over, this whole — it will be referred to the House Judiciary Committee and then it will be the House Judiciary Committee that will take up the articles of impeachment. Will there be other hearings from these committees that are doing the depositions? We’ll still have to see. We can bet it will become more public once it gets to the House Judiciary Committee.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there. Mitch Jeserich of KPFA’s Letters and Politics, heard on Pacifica Radio. And Andrew Bacevich of The Quincy Institute. I’m Amy Goodman with Nermeen Shaikh.

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