On Wednesday, Oct. 23, a faction of Republican members of the House of Representatives, around thirty strong, stormed into a closed door meeting where testimony relevant to the ongoing Trump impeachment inquiry was scheduled to be delivered. The group was led by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla, who claimed that he wanted “to know what in the world was going on behind closed doors.” The hearing was to take place in the Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, a room designed specifically for the purpose of sharing classified and deeply sensitive information with members of Congress. Many of the interloping representatives carried cellphones into the SCIF, which are strictly prohibited due to the potential threat to national security.
The complete negligence regarding national safety that the group displayed is alarming, but perhaps even more alarming was the blatant disrespect shown for procedural due process.
Some important background information: There are three panels conducting the current impeachment probe against President Trump — the Intelligence, Oversight and Foreign Affairs Committees, all of which contain both Democrat and Republican members who are allowed to fully participate in the hearings. Despite this, House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La, stated, “We’ve had enough of (Democratic Intelligence Committee Chairman) Adam Schiff running this Soviet-style star chamber, because only in the Soviet Union would you have a process where they are trying to impeach a duly elected president in secret, behind closed doors.” But this sentiment seems to lack a great deal of context.
Namely, that the current impeachment hearings are run according to rules of conduct that a Republican majority voted to pass in 2015. Republicans developed these rules to conduct hearings regarding former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s involvement in the Benghazi attacks. In this light, attitudes toward closed door hearings seem to be rather new for many Republican members. Furthermore, it is important to remember that these hearings are not actually part of a formal impeachment, but rather part of a probe to evaluate whether impeachment would be an appropriate next step.
With this in mind, the reasons for why these meetings ought to take place in secret seem clear. If the hearings were done in public, it would be impossible to tell whether someone testifying had been influenced by the previous evidence. Private hearings also prevent purely politically motivated congressional representatives from abusing witnesses in public by asking questions simply for the purpose of invigorating their own bases. A final, perhaps obvious, reason for the hearings to be conducted in private is so that any classified information discussed can be appropriately redacted before being made public. Private hearings protect the legitimacy of the proceedings.
In this context, the true motivation behind storming the meeting becomes clear. It is not a noble crusade to prevent unscrupulous Democrats from forming a coup against President Trump, but simply political theater with all the subtlety of a burlesque show. It seems that despite being fully aware of the rules of the House, this group, Scalise in particular, has made it their mission to publicly undermine and delegitimize the proceedings by comparing the process in which Democrats are conducting the probe to the same tactics exercised by the Soviets.
If you would briefly indulge your imagination, consider what the Republican and public response would have been if Democrats had barged into hearings investigating Clinton’s conduct following the Benghazi attacks. To say that there would have been outrage seems to be a significant understatement. And rightly so: Disrupting a dutifully undertaken investigation in order to manufacture distrust and attempt to shelter a public official ought to be considered clearly wrong. This is not only wrong, but also dangerous to democratic institutions as a whole. A major portion of the Republican Caucus was willing to undermine national security protocol as well as violate the confidentiality of a closed door meeting, seemingly for the purpose of trying to prevent investigation into the president. This begs the question: Just how far will these representatives go to stop impeachment proceedings?
It appears that many Republican members of the House made it their aim on Wednesday to intentionally undermine public faith in the impeachment probe when in fact, the probe is being conducted in the exact manner that the rules of the House stipulate: Rules that were put in place by a Republican majority, and rules which are necessary to protect the legitimacy of the hearings.
The fact remains that if an average citizen stormed into the SCIF during a closed meeting, carrying an illegal electronic device with them, they would be arrested and possibly face punitive measures. Should blatantly illegal acts by politicians be tolerated simply because they are attempting to make a political statement? And should the public be forgiving of stunts that serve to subvert faith in important democratic institutions? If the members of this invading contingent face no consequences, it sets a precedent that allows members of the House to ignore the rules of conduct anytime there is a proceeding that they disagree with.
Eli Shea ’21 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.