By Kristina Wong - breitbart.com |
Talk of the impeachment inquiry is everywhere in America, but Americans have no idea what it actually looks like.
That's because House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA) has so far conducted the entire impeachment inquiry in a secret room in the basement of the Capitol building that is not accessible by the general public.
Just to the south of the Capitol Visitor Center underneath the dome and down one spiral staircase is a room hidden behind two heavy wooden doors.
On the doors are red signs with white letters that say: "Restricted Area. No public or media access. Cameras and recording devices prohibited without proper authorization."
Behind those doors is a hallway, which leads to the secret room where Schiff is conducting the impeachment inquiry of President Trump.
The House Intelligence Committee has a huge hearing room in the Longworth House Office Building where they can hold hearings that do not concern classified material, which members of the public and journalists can attend.
But the impeachment inquiry is taking place in the committee's Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF) -a room for members to use when discussing and viewing classified material.
Republicans say the impeachment inquiry is not an intelligence matter that needs to be in the SCIF, but its location gives Schiff the ability to tightly control everything -and everyone -going in and out.
Security guards stand in front of the two wooden doors to make sure reporters and other unauthorized members of the public stay out. But inside the hallway, there are security officers who make sure unauthorized members of Congress and staffers stay out of the SCIF.
Schiff and the Democrats control who is allowed in. "You can't go in unless you're on the list," a congressional source with knowledge of the impeachment inquiry told Breitbart News. "[They] have like a list, so you can't sneak into the SCIF or try to get an extra staffer in there or something like that."
Under Schiff's rules for the impeachment inquiry, only members of the three committees involved in the inquiry -House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs, and Oversight and Government Reform Committees -are allowed in.
The House Intelligence Committee can have as many staffers as they want in the SCIF, but the other two committees can only have two staffers each.
The SCIF is a small windowless room that has a long rectangular table in the middle, sources said. Democrats sit on one side, Republicans sit on the other, and the witness sits at the head of the table.
Although the room is intended to seat 30 to 40 people, during the recent deposition of Amb. Gordon Sondland there were as many as 70 to 80 people crammed inside, forcing lawmakers to stand and sit on the floor, according to a Republican source on a committee involved in impeachment.
With so many bodies packed in there, it quickly got too hot, requiring the blasting of air conditioning, which then made it too cold, the source said.
Having so many people inside the room and dozens of reporters loitering outside is a security hazard and potentially a fire hazard, the Republican source said.
"The SCIF is supposed to be a secure location for safe-holding of classified information, but there are real concerns about having so many people wandering around," said the source.
The depositions typically start with opening statements, then Democrats have about an hour to ask the witness questions, and then Republicans have about an hour.
There is usually a break before Democrats begin another round of questioning, and then Republicans, and so on, until there are no more questions left. The recent depositions have lasted as many as ten hours.
Inside that secret room, Schiff has lorded his power over the process, Republicans say.
"He will remind you early and often that he is in charge," said Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY), who has attended every deposition and transcribed interview.
"Schiff likes to interject himself during the Republican questioning and we always have to point out to him we obviously don't do the same thing during their questioning, but he just can't help himself," he said.
Since the House has not formally voted on beginning an impeachment inquiry -which would give Republicans certain rights and the Trump administration due process, Republicans are not able to subpoena witnesses and the White House is not able to have a counsel present.
Zeldin said Schiff is taking full advantage of that and forcing witnesses to answer questions they are not sure they can answer.
"He'll tell the witness to speak even if the witness isn't sure and there may be an outstanding question about executive privilege or something else," he said.
"So inside the super secret bunker of the Capitol, the basement where the impeachment inquiry charade depositions are taking place, he is the grand jury, the judge, and the prosecutor," he said.
Zeldin said Democrats have been petty about sharing materials as well.
"If a person asks for an additional copy of the exhibit, the sick smile that will be on some people's faces as if somehow being in the majority means that we should make a petty moment of what might be a genuine ask," he said.
Republicans say Democrats are keeping transcripts from members of Congress who will ultimately vote on any articles of impeachment, and even from Republican members involved in the inquiry.
House Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Devin Nunes said Republican members involved in the inquiry cannot even view transcripts without having "minders" looking over their shoulder. "That is unprecedented," Nunes told Fox News on Wednesday.
Staffers of the committees say the environment inside and outside the SCIF is tense.
"It is so, so tense. I mean, it is like what you see in movies tense. It's weird," said the congressional source.
"It is just crazy. No one talking to anybody. Everyone being real quiet, because you just don't know who's standing around you," the source said. "You're dealing with three committees and you don't know who everyone is."
Republicans say the depositions and interviews are unclassified and there is no need for them to take place behind closed doors.
Schiff has defended the secrecy of the hearings by comparing it to a "grand jury," claiming he does not want potential witnesses to be able to compare stories.
But Republicans argue that his claim is undercut by the numerous leaks from Democrats to reporters about what is being said during the closed-door interviews, despite House ethics rules gagging both sides.
"Unfortunately, this process of cherry-picking leaks withholding key facts and outright lying is a formula of Adam Schiff that many in the media are playing along with, and many people who were part of the enraged liberal activist base eat up," Zeldin said.
"This whole project, is Schiff's desire to write the world's worst parody to take down a sitting president," he said, referring to Schiff reading a fake conversation between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during a hearing and later justifying it as a "parody."
Republicans suspect that Democrats instructed the "whistleblower" to file his complaint with the intelligence community inspector general instead of the State or Justice Department inspector general so that the matter could be handled by Schiff behind closed doors.
"It's all about shaping the narrative," the Republican source said. "There's a whole leaking apparatus in place."
The source characterized that apparatus as the same as during the FBI's collusion investigation -selective leaks to reporters that are then blown out of context with no countervailing narrative.
More than two dozen House Republicans led by Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) stormed the SCIF on Wednesday morning, demanding access to an impeachment inquiry that could reverse the 2016 election.
"So far, Adam Schiff's impeachment inquiry has been marked by secret interviews, selective leaks, weird theatrical performances of transcripts that never happened, and lies about contacts with the whistleblower," Gaetz said at a press conference before the storming.
"We're going to try to go in there and we're going to try to figure out what's going on, on behalf of the millions of Americans that we represent that want to see this Congress working for them, and not obsessed with attacking a president who we believe has not done anything wrong," he said.
House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) added, "Adam Schiff is trying to impeach a president of the United States behind closed doors, literally trying to overturn the results of the 2016 election a year before Americans get to go to the polls and decide who's going to be the president."
"The American people deserve better, we will demand better," Scalise said.
"This is being held behind closed doors for a reason -because they don't want you to see what the witnesses are like," said House Freedom Caucus Chairman Andy Biggs (R-AZ), citing former Special Counsel Robert Mueller's faltering testimony.
"This is a Soviet-style impeachment process, this is closed doors, it is unfair in every way," Biggs added. "We're going to go in there and demand we get our rights as members of Congress."
House Democrats have suggested that they would open the hearings up to the public, but have not stated exactly when.
"That's obviously a step after this. But right now we're concentrating on getting as many people as we can," said House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-NY) said, according to the Hill.
The pace is already beginning to take a toll on staffers and even reporters, sources said.
"This is like a marathon. And we're like on mile nine and we're severely out of shape. Even the reporters who are there, they're like tired, everyone's like kind of gassed," the congressional source said.
"This is like the long slog with not a lot of certainty on when it's going to end. We've been flying through people. They supposedly want to get it done between Christmas and Thanksgiving. There are staffers who have worked for 20 days. They have not taken a single day off and work from 8am to 8pm," the source said.