On his way into a secure room in the basement of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday morning, Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) encountered a couple dozen House Republicans railing against the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump.
“They were basically in a scream therapy session, denouncing what they regarded as treachery … It was total boilerplate talking points from Russia,” Welch said. He paused to correct what may have been a Freudian slip. “From Trump.”
The Republicans had amassed outside the rooms in which members of three House committees have been taking testimony in recent weeks from witnesses in the impeachment probe. They were demanding to be let in, though only committee members are permitted to enter the so-called Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility.
“I say 'scream therapy' and I’m actually not kidding,” Welch said of the impromptu press conference outside the committee rooms. “There were not analytical categories you could land on. No factual basis. Just a lot of rage.”
As Welch, a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, waited for Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Laura Cooper to be sworn in, the Republican members burst through the doors and ground proceedings to a halt.
“A lot of them started yelling,” he recalled. “Some of them had apparently not had enough scream therapy outside, so they continued the session.”
Though members are not allowed to bring electronic devices into the secure facility, some were holding up cellphones to take photos and videos of the room, which Welch called “shocking.”
“I mean, this was a total breach of House rules,” he said of the disruption that delayed Cooper’s testimony for much of the day.
Though Welch may have been shocked, he wasn’t surprised. “What you’re seeing here is that their defense is everything but addressing the merits of the case,” he said. “Fundamentally, their goal was not to open the process. It was to stop the process.”
In Welch’s view, the case is quite simple: Trump called on the Ukrainian government to investigate the family of a political rival, former vice president Joe Biden, and withheld congressionally authorized security assistance in order to get his way. Tuesday’s testimony from William Taylor, the ambassador to Ukraine, was “very powerful, very convincing, very detailed,” Welch said, but what really matters is what the president himself said in a July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
“It all goes back to what I think is the smoking gun, so to speak — this scandal’s version of the Watergate tapes — and that’s the president’s readout of his conversation [with Zelensky],” Welch said. “It’s the president’s own words that are the most compelling evidence of what the president wanted. He said what he wanted. So someone like Ambassador Taylor was able to show how long-term and focused that was as a goal of the Trump administration.”
Though Welch called for Trump’s impeachment in July — before the Ukrainian situation came to light — he declined to say Wednesday how he would vote on whatever articles of impeachment might emerge from the current probe. “At this point my focus is not talking about how I’m going to vote,” he said. “My focus is on contributing to the effort to get evidence and have a process that meets the test of fairness for the American people.”
As for whether the Republicans who stormed the secure facility should be sanctioned in any way? “I don’t have a strong view of whether they should or shouldn’t. My goal is to move the process along,” Welch said. “I just want to get back on track.”
Disclosure: Paul Heintz worked as Peter Welch's communications director from November 2008 to March 2011.