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World Republican protest delays impeachment testimony from Pentagon’s Ukraine expert

22:26  23 october  2019
22:26  23 october  2019 Source:   washingtonpost.com

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The planned impeachment testimony from a Pentagon official responsible for Ukraine policy was delayed Wednesday after several of President Trump’s congressional allies staged a demonstration against the probe and barged into a secure facility on Capitol Hill.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Laura Cooper was due to speak at 10 a.m. in a closed-door session about the mechanics of U.S. security assistance for Ukraine and the fallout from the White House’s decision to withhold it for several months over the summer. But her session was disrupted as it was about to begin, with conservative lawmakers refusing to leave the specially protected room known as a SCIF where impeachment witnesses have met with lawmakers.

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The protest caused House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) to consult the House Sergeant at Arms about how to proceed, according to one Democratic lawmaker who witnessed the scene.

By noon, several of the protesting members had apparently tweeted from inside the SCIF, a security breach . The area is tightly restricted to allow lawmakers to review sensitive material without the risk of surveillance, and cellphones are prohibited.

“Reporting from Adam B. Schiff’s secret chamber,” Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) wrote just before noon, two hours after Cooper’s testimony was scheduled to begin. Biggs stated that about 15 Republican lawmakers remained in the SCIF at that time.

Schiff’s staff declined to comment on whether Cooper’s testimony would be canceled for the day, given the disruption.

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The demonstration reflected Republicans’ desire to shift the narrative away from the allegations against Trump and toward complaints about how Democrats are conducting the inquiry. GOP lawmakers have accused the probe’s leaders of conducting a secret would-be takedown of the president by investigating behind closed doors; Democrats have said they will open the process for public hearings in a matter of weeks after they conduct their initial investigation.

The impeachment inquiry’s central question is whether Trump ordered the hold on military aid to pressure Ukraine to launch investigations that would benefit him politically. A career bureaucrat who served in the Pentagon since 2001, Cooper is unlikely to have had many interactions with the president or his inner circle, but she would have played a role in overseeing much of the roughly $391 million in aid at issue in the probe.

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Before Cooper’s testimony began, about two dozen conservative Republican members led by Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) gathered near the deposition room to protest what they described as Democrats’ secretive approach to the inquiry. Several in the group accused Democratic leaders of trying to undo the 2016 election result, rallying behind a talking point promoted by House GOP leaders.

“If behind those doors, they intend to overturn the result of an American presidential election, we want to know what’s going on,” Gaetz said, accusing Democrats of being “obsessed with attacking a president who we believe has not done anything to deserve impeachment.”

The group walked into the restricted area en masse, and chants of “let us in” were heard from outside.

A shouting match ensued between Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) and some Democrats in the room as Schiff left to consult with the Sergeant at Arms, according to Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), who witnessed the scene.

At one point, Rep. K. Michael Conaway (R-Texas), a senior member of the House Intelligence Committee, started to collect the Republicans’ phones, appearing to realize having the electronics there was a bad idea, Connolly said.

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Gohmert, one of Trump’s top defenders, used the opportunity to rail against what he described as injustice toward the president. Many Democrats sat watching, not wanting to engage.

Minutes after entering, several members of the group who do not sit on committees involved in the inquiry walked out, saying they were barred from the room.

The demonstration was the second attempt by non-committee Republicans to gain access in two weeks.

“They refused us once again,” said Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.). “This is an outrage.”

On Tuesday, members of the House Freedom Caucus met with Trump at the White House, where they emphasized their support for the president, according to one lawmaker who attended, Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.). Trump told them to be “tough” because Democrats are “fighting dirty and have been fighting dirty” and that “maybe it’s time to take the gloves off,” according to DesJarlais.

Trump’s meeting with his congressional allies came as the Democrat-led inquiry appeared to gain steam with testimony from William B. Taylor Jr. The acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine detailed for impeachment investigators how he was told by other officials that the military AID’s release was contingent on a public commitment by Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to investigate the Biden family and interference in the 2016 election.

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In a 15-page opening statement, Taylor gave a detailed account of his growing awareness between June and mid-September that Trump was seeking to pressure Zelensky into investigating a domestic political opponent.

Joe Biden, the former vice president, is seeking the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. His son Hunter was a board member at Ukrainian energy company Burisma Holdings from 2014 to mid-April of this year.

Taylor also described two distinct channels he said emerged for U.S. policymaking toward Ukraine under Trump — one overseen by the diplomatic establishment and another overseen by the president’s personal attorney, Rudolph W. Giuliani, with assistance from several Trump appointees.

“The push to make President Zelenskyy publicly commit to investigations of Burisma and alleged interference in the 2016 election showed how the official foreign policy of the United States was undercut by the irregular efforts led by Mr. Giuliani,” Taylor told lawmakers.

Cooper will likely have firsthand knowledge of an assessment described by Taylor and conducted by the Pentagon that gauged the effectiveness of U.S. aid to Ukraine after it was put on hold. The effort led to a recommendation that the aid be reinstated.

Cooper is also expected to detail interagency meetings in which senior officials discussed the need for aid and the best ways to convince Trump to resume it. The White House released the funds in September under bipartisan pressure from lawmakers.

Trump has denied claims of a quid pro quo and on Tuesday likened the impeachment inquiry to a “lynching,” drawing condemnation from Democrats and several Republicans.

Cooper will be the eighth witness to speak to lawmakers in person since the inquiry launched in late September. Her counterpart at the State Department, deputy assistant secretary George Kent, testified last week.

elise.viebeck@washpost.com

Greg Jaffe and Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.

Greg Murphy, Louie Gohmert standing in front of a crowd: President Trump’s congressional allies protest outside the planned impeachment deposition of Laura Cooper, a Ukraine expert at the Pentagon. © Patrick Semansky/AP President Trump’s congressional allies protest outside the planned impeachment deposition of Laura Cooper, a Ukraine expert at the Pentagon.

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