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Republicans Grind Impeachment Inquiry to Halt as Picture Darkens for Trump


WASHINGTON — House Republicans ground the impeachment inquiry to a halt on Wednesday, staging an attention-grabbing protest at the Capitol that sowed chaos and derailed a crucial deposition as they sought to insulate President Trump against mounting evidence of misconduct.

The day after the most damning testimony yet about Mr. Trump’s pressure campaign to enlist Ukraine to smear his political rivals, House Republicans stormed into the secure office suite where impeachment investigators have been conducting private interviews that have painted a damaging picture of the president’s behavior — and refused to leave.

Chanting “Let us in! Let us in!” about two dozen Republican lawmakers — most of whom are not on the committees conducting the inquiry and are therefore not entitled to attend their hearings — pushed past Capitol Police officers to enter the secure rooms of the House Intelligence Committee, which is leading the investigation. Republicans who are on the committees have been in on the hearings from the start and have heard all the witnesses.

“This is a Soviet-style process,” declared Representative Steve Scalise, the No. 2 Republican. “It should not be allowed in the United States of America. Every member of Congress ought to be allowed in that room. The press ought to be allowed in that room.”

Frustrated Democrats temporarily shut down the session before resuming it in the afternoon, when Laura K. Cooper, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, began testifying.

Across the Capitol, leading Republican senators who have become resigned to the prospect of serving as jurors in the impeachment trial of their own party’s president were struggling to cope with the revelations about Mr. Trump.

“The picture coming out of it, based on the reporting that we’ve seen, I would say is not a good one,” Senator John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 Republican, told CNN. “But I would say also that until we have a process that allows for everybody to see this in full transparency, it’s pretty hard to draw any hard and fast conclusions.”

His comments came a day after Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, denied a claim by Mr. Trump that the senator had told the president that a telephone call he had with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, which has become a crucial focus of the inquiry, was “perfect” and “innocent.” Mr. McConnell said he could recall no such conversation.

In the House, Republicans were rushing to Mr. Trump’s defense as the president has publicly demanded, as they protested the inquiry and insisted on access. Some brought their cellphones into the secure room, which is not permitted and considered a security breach. The sergeant-at-arms, the top law enforcement officer in the Capitol, was called in to handle the situation as Representative Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California and the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, attempted to intervene.

The standoff stretched into the afternoon as protesting Republicans ordered pizza and fast food for the throng of reporters assembled to witness their spectacle. It came the day after the explosive testimony of William B. Taylor Jr., the top American diplomat in Ukraine, who effectively confirmed Democrats’ main accusation against Mr. Trump: that the president withheld military aid from Ukraine in a quid pro quo effort to pressure that country’s leader to incriminate former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and smear other Democrats.

Democrats said the timing was no coincidence, and characterized the Republican disruption — “sit-in, stand-in, call it whatever you want,” said Representative Harley Rouda, Democrat of California — as a desperate attempt to deflect attention from the damaging testimony.

At the White House, Mr. Trump took to Twitter to assail Mr. Taylor and his lawyer John Bellinger — and to offer encouragement to Republican protesters.

“Never Trumper Republican John Bellinger, represents Never Trumper Diplomat Bill Taylor (who I don’t know), in testimony before Congress!” the president wrote. “Do Nothing Democrats allow Republicans Zero Representation, Zero due process, and Zero Transparency.”

For weeks now, lawmakers on three House committees — Intelligence, Oversight and Reform, and Foreign Affairs — have been conducting private question-and-answer sessions, which have produced a stream of compelling testimony from government witnesses, much of it confirming and expanding on the intelligence whistle-blower complaint that touched off the impeachment inquiry.

Those sessions are attended by both Democrats and Republicans, and both have an opportunity to question witnesses; more than 100 of the 435 members of the House are eligible to participate. Democrats have said that they plan to hold open hearings after the committees finish deposing witnesses, and that they intend to make public complete transcripts of witness testimony after they have been reviewed for classified material.

But amid a drip-drip-drip of news accounts from the closed sessions, Republicans have grown increasingly frustrated, complaining that Democrats are controlling the narrative.

On Wednesday morning, Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida led a parade of his colleagues to the bowels of the Capitol, where Ms. Cooper was to be deposed in the secure room, known as a SCIF, for Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility.

Also on Wednesday, House impeachment investigators leveled new demands of the State Department, requesting access to a relatively narrow set of communications, notes and memorandums related to American policy toward Ukraine that could bolster damning witness testimony.

Among the documents in question are summaries of key executive branch meetings, diplomatic cables about Mr. Trump’s decision to freeze $391 million in security assistance for Ukraine, text and email messages among key figures in the inquiry, and other records created as Mr. Trump and his allies sought to pressure Ukraine into undertaking investigations into his political rivals.

“These documents include information central to the inquiry’s core area of investigation: the president’s efforts to press Ukraine to initiate investigations that would benefit his personal and political interests, and not the national interest,” wrote three Democratic committee leaders guiding the inquiry, Mr. Schiff; Representative Eliot L. Engel of New York, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee; and Representative Carolyn B. Maloney of New York, the acting chairwoman of the Oversight and Reform Committee.

In keeping with confidentiality rules around the investigation, the three Democrats did not specifically identify the documents in question, but they appeared to match descriptions of records referenced in recent days by key witnesses.

On Tuesday, Mr. Taylor told the committees that he kept detailed notes of his time in Kiev that allowed him to recreate a damning portrait of events in his testimony. He referred to memos, including a June 30 account of his conversation with the Ukrainian president, that could provide new and potentially explosive avenues of investigation for Democrats if they get their hands on them. He also discussed a late-August cable he composed “describing the ‘folly’ I saw in withholding military aid to Ukraine at a time when hostilities were still active.”

A lawyer for Gordon D. Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, indicated before his deposition with investigators that the ambassador had produced communications and other records to the State Department that he hoped would be handed over to investigators. They were not.

And another former State Department official told investigators that one of his former colleagues, George P. Kent, had written a memo documenting an early October meeting with a State Department lawyer about how to respond to the impeachment inquiry that had alarmed him.

The Democrats did not put a due date on their request, and for now have chosen not to issue a subpoena. The State Department defied an earlier, broader subpoena for a swath of potential records related to the case. It may be considerably more difficult for the department to justify not handing over documents matching the latest request, though, given the political pressure created by the testimony from Mr. Taylor, Mr. Sondland and others.

Nicholas Fandos, Emily Cochrane and Michael D. Shear contributed reporting.


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