GOP House members disrupt Trump impeachment inquiry

By Richard Cowan and Mark Hosenball and Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON, Oct 23 (Reuters) - Republican lawmakers, encouraged by President Donald Trump to get tougher in fighting the impeachment inquiry against him, on Wednesday disrupted the Democratic-led U.S. House of Representatives probe as a Pentagon official was about to testify.

The Republicans stormed into a hearing room where Pentagon official Laura Cooper was due to testify behind closed doors, lawmakers and aides said.

In a dramatic confrontation during an escalating impeachment probe, Capitol police were called in to clear the room and bring order, a Republican congressional aide said.

The aide said the Republicans brought in cellphones to the room, a high-security facility where electronic devices are not allowed.

"They're freaked out. They're trying to stop this investigation," Democratic Representative Ted Lieu said. "They don't want to hear from witness Cooper today. They know more facts are going to be delivered which are absolutely damning to the president of the United States."

Democratic Representative Stephen Lynch, who is allowed to attend depositions as a member of House Oversight Committee, said Cooper did not testify.

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A House aide said the day's impeachment-related proceedings were suspended for the time being.

The impeachment inquiry, which threatens Trump's presidency, focuses on his request for Ukraine to investigate a domestic rival - Democrat Joe Biden - for his personal political benefit.

Cooper, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, earlier in the day arrived for testimony and was expected to face questions about Trump's decision this year to withhold $391 million in security assistance to Ukraine approved by Congress to help deal with Russia-backed separatists.

In testimony on Tuesday before the three House committees leading the inquiry, William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, said Trump had made the aid contingent on Ukraine publicly announcing it would conduct politically motivated investigations the president demanded.

Democratic Representative Gerry Connolly said some Republicans had yelled in the room. Republican Representative Matt Gaetz, an outspoken Trump supporter who led Wednesday's action, had tried to enter the committee room last week but was turned away because he was not a member of any of the three leading the investigation.

Trump on Monday told reporters that "Republicans have to get tougher and fight" the impeachment, saying the Democrats "vicious and they stick together."

"It never ends. The Do Nothing Dems are terrible!" Trump wrote on Twitter on Wednesday, later adding their "case is DEAD!"

Before the hearing room was stormed, dozens of House Republicans appeared before reporters with some denouncing the impeachment process run by Democrats as a "joke," a "railroad job," a "charade" and "Soviet-style." They complained that testimony was being taken privately rather than in public hearings and that the House did not hold a vote formally authorizing the investigation.

"It is a sham, and it's time for it to end," Republican congressman Mark Walker said.

WIDE LATITUDE

The U.S. Constitution gives the House wide latitude in how to conduct the impeachment process. 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 Trump from office.

As she arrived at the U.S. Capitol, Cooper did not answer questions from reporters. She apparently appeared voluntarily before the lawmakers as the Pentagon had not blocked her from testifying. The Trump administration had sought to block testimony by several other current and former officials.

Taylor said he was told by Gordon Sondland, the U.S. envoy to the European Union, that Trump had linked the aid's release to public declarations by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy that he would investigate Biden, his son Hunter Biden's tenure on the board of a Ukrainian energy company called Burisma, and a debunked conspiracy theory that Ukraine, and not Russia, meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

The impeachment inquiry, triggered by a whistleblower complaint against Trump by a person within the U.S. intelligence community, focuses on a July 25 telephone call in which Trump asked Zelenskiy to carry out those two investigations. Zelenskiy agreed during the call. The aid was later provided.

Federal election law prohibits candidates from accepting foreign help in an election. Taylor's testimony ran counter to Trump's contention that there was no quid pro quo - a Latin phrase meaning a favor for a favor - or wrongdoing of any kind. The president has accused Democrats of trying to oust him to prevent his re-election.

So far, few of Trump's fellow conservatives have appeared inclined toward his removal, though some cracks in their support for him have appeared in recent weeks after his withdrawal of U.S. forces in Syria and his racially charged comments on Tuesday calling himself the victim of an impeachment "lynching."

Senator John Thune, the Senate's No. 2 Republican, told reporters that picture painted by Taylor's testimony "based on the reporting that we've seen is not a good one."

"But I would say also that until we have a process that allows for everybody to see this in full transparency, it's pretty hard to draw a hard and fast conclusion," Thune added.

Representative Eric Swalwell, a Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, disputed Republican arguments that the impeachment process was unfair, saying witness depositions were held behind closed doors to prevent possible coordination and that there have been signs that may be happening.

"We have seen evidence that witnesses have talked to other witnesses," Swalwell told MSNBC, without giving further details.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan and David Morgan; Additional reporting by Jonathan Landay, Patricia Zengerle, Amanda Becker and Susan Heavey; Writing by Will Dunham Editing by Alistair Bell)