GOP Intrusion Waylays Testimony From Pentagon Official

House Republicans gather for a news conference after Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Laura Cooper arrived Wednesday for a closed-door meeting to testify as part of the House impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

WASHINGTON (CN) – A Pentagon official expected to offer detail on the lengthy holdup of U.S. military aid to Ukraine finally saw her deposition get underway Wednesday, five hours after two dozen Republican lawmakers armed with cellphones stormed the closed-door hearing and refused to leave.

“We’ve had this issue before, not on this scale, but I’m confident Speaker Pelosi and Chairman Schiff will figure this out,” Representative Stephen Lynch, a Massachusetts Democrat, said on CNN Wednesday afternoon. “We have to get to this information. We have to get to this testimony. The Republicans don’t want this testimony to go on. … They don’t want any testimony they can’t dispute so they’re attacking process. They’re trying to tip over the table to try and stop this but its not serving them well. At the end of the day, we will get the testimony. There’s no question about that.”

Laura Cooper, while perhaps not central to Trump’s dealings with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, oversees procedures for military assistance packages as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia.

In this role, Cooper is seen as an important asset for the impeachment inquiry led by Democrats on the House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight Committees.

Several Democratic lawmakers on Wednesday dubbed the gaggle of Republicans, led by Florida Representative Matt Gaetz, a political stunt.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff has said repeatedly since the impeachment inquiry first got underway that witness testimony would become public and transcripts would be released, and that the decision to conduct depositions behind closed doors was one made out of necessity.

During a scrum with reporters last week, Schiff cited his concern that witnesses could be tampered with or feel undue pressure from other lawmakers, the media or White House during such an early evidence-gathering stage of the inquiry.

Democratic lawmakers have aligned behind Schiff, with many saying that the Republican protests over process — instead of the content of the inquiry itself — speak volumes.

“We’ve had this issue before, not on this scale, but I’m confident Speaker Pelosi and Chairman Schiff will figure this out,” Representative Stephen Lynch, a Massachusetts Democrat, said on CNN Wednesday afternoon. “We have to get to this information. We have to get tot his testimony. The Republicans don’t want this testimony to go on. … They don’t want any testimony they can’t dispute so they’re attacking process. They’re trying to tip over the table to try and stop this but its not serving them well. At the end of the day, we will get the testimony. There’s no question about that.”

Republicans who are not members of a given committee, according to House Rules, cannot participate in that committee’s hearings.

According to a Wednesday tweet from Republican Representative Andy Biggs of Arizona, Schiff reportedly warned the squatting GOP lawmakers that he would file an ethics complaint against any Republicans who refused to leave the secure room.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Laura Cooper arrives for a closed-door meeting to testify Wednesday as part of the House impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

A Defense Department employee since 2001, Cooper reportedly worked closely with John Rood, undersecretary of defense policy at the Pentagon. Rood issued a letter to lawmakers in May certifying that Ukraine had rightfully earned a $250 million military-aid package after taking “substantial actions to make defense institutional reforms for the purposes of decreasing corruption, increasing accountability and sustaining improvements of combat capability enabled by U.S. assistance.”

Typically, after a certification letter is issued and the Pentagon authorizes funding, the next step is congressional appropriation. After that, the Office of Management and Budget must grant approval for disbursement.

In the case of the funds for Ukraine, however, the funds remained blocked until mid-September when the Office of Management and Budget finally approved the package.

The delay was so significant it prompted at least one lawmaker, Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin, to tell reporters in August that the delay was “crazy” since OMB approval delays usually take mere days, not weeks or months.

OMB is headed up by Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff who held essentially gave a quid pro quo admission to reporters last week and then promptly walked back his remarks.

Though the Defense Department did not formally comply with a subpoena to relinquish records sought by Congress, the Pentagon did not block Cooper from testifying in Wednesday’s closed-door session. She will also have a lawyer present.

Testimony from Michael Duffey, the associate director for national security programs at OMB, was also scheduled for Wednesday, but the agency’s acting director, Russ Vought, tweeted Monday that neither Duffey nor himself would comply with the deposition requests. 

A representative from OMB did not immediately respond to request for comment. The State Department has also ignored its subpoena from the impeachment inquiry committees since Sept. 27.

In a letter issued to Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan on Wednesday, Chairman Schiff warned Sullivan that the department’s failure to supply correspondence, cables and other memos specifically related to the July 25 call between Trump and Zelesnky would be considered “obstruction of the lawful functions of Congress and of the impeachment inquiry.”

“Because the committees have gathered evidence about the direct relevance of these documents, including highly significant information contained in these materials that pertain to the allegations that the president abused the power of his office for personal political benefit, the committees may draw the inference that their non-production indicates these documents support the allegations against the president and others,” Schiff wrote, joined by House Committee on Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel and acting House Oversight Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney.

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