WASHINGTON • House Democrats are preparing to move their largely private impeachment inquiry on to a more public stage as soon as next month and are already grappling with how best to present the complex Ukraine saga to the American people.
Over the past three weeks, a parade of current and former Trump administration officials have testified behind closed doors. But the inquiry devolved into chaos on Wednesday as Republican lawmakers, encouraged by President Donald Trump to get tougher in fighting Democratic efforts to impeach him, stormed a high-security hearing room and delayed testimony by a key Pentagon witness.
More than two dozen Republican lawmakers who were not authorised to attend the closed-door hearing surged into the room where US defence official Laura Cooper, who oversees Ukraine and Russia matters, was to testify before Republican and Democratic lawmakers.
In a dramatic confrontation during the escalating probe that threatens Mr Trump's presidency even as he seeks re-election next year, the Republican lawmakers caused a stand-off with the three Democratic-led House committees leading the inquiry before finally leaving the room, allowing Ms Cooper to begin her testimony.
The Department of Defence had directed Ms Cooper not to appear for her deposition. But the House Intelligence Committee subpoenaed her early on Wednesday and she complied.
The impeachment probe focuses on Mr Trump's request for Ukraine to investigate a domestic rival - former vice-president Joe Biden, who is a front runner for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination - for his personal political benefit. Ms Cooper was expected to face questions about Mr Trump's decision to withhold US$391 million (S$533 million) in security assistance to Ukraine approved by Congress.
By having Republican lawmakers barge into the hearing room, Mr Trump's allies sought to put the focus on what they portray as unfair Democratic tactics rather than on the President's conduct.
"The American people have a voice in this process. They have a right to know. It should be in the sunlight," House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy told reporters.
Although the Republicans complained of a lack of transparency in the inquiry, the US Constitution gives the House wide latitude in how to conduct the impeachment process and set rules for the probe.
"They're freaked out. They're trying to stop this investigation," Democratic Representative Ted Lieu said of the Republicans.
"They know more facts are going to be delivered which are absolutely damning to the President of the United States."
Most of the Republicans who stormed the hearing room are not members of the three committees probing the Ukraine matter. The committee members, including dozens of Republicans, have been taking part in impeachment depositions for weeks, with the chance to cross-examine witnesses.
Democrats argue that past impeachments have also included a closed-door investigative phase before findings are presented to the public, and that the secrecy of the proceedings is necessary to preserve the integrity of the testimony, much like that of witnesses before a grand jury. At some point, Democrats expect to release transcripts of witness interviews and pull together a comprehensive report laying out their findings.
"I think everybody just needs to be patient," said Representative Cheri Bustos, an Illinois Democrat and chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "This is, in a sense, a grand-jury proceeding, and then whatever comes out of it, you present to the full body."
In the meantime, Democrats are struggling with what to do if Republicans continue to disrupt the depositions. The inquiry could lead to the House passing formal charges, known as articles of impeachment, prompting a trial in the Republican-controlled Senate on whether to remove Mr Trump from office.
The chief challenges for the Democrats in going public will be finding a compelling roster of witnesses to drive home the case against the President - and making sure they do not mishandle what may be their best opportunity to sell voters on impeachment, with a message that will resonate through the rest of the 2020 election season.
WASHINGTON POST, REUTERS