The walls are closing in on President Donald Trump as he faces an impeachment inquiry over his communications with foreign leaders, and he's dragging Republican members of Congress into his mess.
This week on Capitol Hill was particularly chaotic, as another State Department official gave damning bombshell testimony to the three committees pursuing the impeachment inquiry.
Republican members of Congress were also boxed into a corner into defending a Trump tweet making a racially insensitive comparison between the ongoing impeachment investigation and a lynching — further highlighting the risks of publicly defying or denouncing Trump.
Then, a group of House Republicans caused total chaos in the basement of the Capitol Hill by storming and forcing their way into a highly secure committee room where those three committees were attempting to hear testimony from a Pentagon official with cell phones in hand — a huge breach of national security.
It doesn't help that the White House lacks a coherent strategy on impeachment — as Sen. Lindsey Graham himself admitted — and has mostly improvising their messaging as they go along.
Here's a breakdown of how Trump helped fuel a very bad, no good, horrible week for congressional Republicans.
Acting US ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor gave explosive closed-door testimony
For the past few weeks, current and former diplomats have come to Capitol Hill to provide damning testimony on the nature of the Trump administration's and Trump personal attorney Rudy Giuliani's overtures towards Ukraine.
But according to Politico, the testimony of former chargé d'affaires at the US Embassy to Ukraine and acting ambassador Bill Taylor was so explosive that his opening statement — leaked in full to the Washington Post — prompted "sighs and gasps" from people in the room.
The whistleblower complaint filed by an anonymous intelligence community official in August claimed Trump was "using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election" in a July 25 phone call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky.
Trump ordered his administration to withhold a nearly $400 million military-aid package to Ukraine days before the phone call.
While the White House's notes of the call show the US president made no direct mention of offering aid in exchange for Zelensky's assistance in probing former Vice President Joe Biden, they confirm Trump brought up how the US does "a lot for Ukraine." Immediately after, Trump asked Zelensky to do him a "favor, though" by investigating Biden and a debunked conspiracy theory that Ukraine is in possession of a Democratic National Committee server.
So far, the administration and many members of Congress have claimed there was no quid-pro-quo whatsoever, and that Trump was justified in asking Ukraine to investigate the Bidens.
But White House acting chief of staff and Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney seemingly admitted in a press briefing to reporters last week that the administration engaged in a quid-pro-quo with Ukraine to trade US military aid for investigations — blowing that defense out of the water.
"Did he also mention to me in passing the corruption related to the DNC server? Absolutely. No question about that. But that's it, and that's why we held up the money," Mulvaney said during the conference, later doubling down and adding, "I have news for everybody: get over it. There's going to be political influence in foreign policy. That is going to happen
Not only is pressuring a foreign government to dig up dirt on a political opponent a potential violation of federal campaign finance laws, but withholding military aid to do so — as Mulvaney suggested — could also constitute bribery, extortion, and misappropriation of taxpayer funds.
While Mulvaney tried to walk back his disastrous press conference, the damage was already done — and further compounded by Taylor's testimony.
In short, Taylor testified to a concerted effort spearheaded by Giuliani's back-channel and abetted by other diplomats to pressure Ukraine to announce an investigation into the Bidens (even if no investigation actually happened), in exchange for releasing the aid.
He described how in texts and phone calls with officials, including US ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland, others had made it clear that releasing the aid was contingent on an investigation, which Taylor found extremely alarming. In fact, Taylor called it "crazy" in text messages previously released to Congress.
At one point Taylor testified that Sondland, a wealthy hospitality executive, explained to him Trump "is a businessman" and "when a businessman is about to sign a check to someone who owes him something … the businessman asks that person to pay up before signing the check."
GOP members of Congress felt compelled to defend Trump's comment comparing impeachment to lynching
On Tuesday morning, Trump threw a stick of dynamite on the atmosphere on Capitol Hill by comparing the ongoing impeachment proceedings to a lynching in a tweet — once again putting Congressional Republicans in an uncomfortable situation of risking Trump's wrath if there were to fully condemn his remark.
"So someday, if a Democrat becomes President and the Republicans win the House, even by a tiny margin, they can impeach the President, without due process or fairness or any legal rights. All Republicans must remember what they are witnessing here – a lynching," Trump wrote.
Trump's comparison of the ongoing impeachment investigation to the systemic murdering and torture that thousands of African-Americans faced in the late 19th and early 20th century was immediately decried as highly offensive and racially insensitive.
Some congressional Republicans have denounced Trump's use of the term.
Sen. Susan Collins of Maine wrote that "lynching brings back images of a terrible time in our nation's history, and the President never should have made that comparison."
Other members of Congress who are more closely aligned with Trump either completely defended the comparison, or at least defended Trump's frustration:
- Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa said, "The House Democrats are clearly pushing really hard and playing politics with all this stuff … I get his frustration, I probably wouldn't use that language."
- Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said that impeachment was "a lynching in every sense of the word" and "un-American." He later told reporters, "it's not just racial my friends. No. I'm from South Carolina I understand it very well. Mob rule is what lynching is all about."
- Sen. Tim Scott, also of South Carolina, said, "There's no question that the impeachment process is the closet thing to a political death row trial, so I get his absolute rejection of the process. I wouldn't use the word lynching."
- Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said, "given the history of this in our country I would not compare it to a lynching. That was an unfortunate choice of words."
House Republicans caused chaos and compromised national security by storming a secure briefing room
After Taylor's bombshell testimony on Tuesday, a group of 30 House Republicans barged into a secure committee room where the Intelligence, Foreign Affairs, and Oversight Committees were attempting to depose another witness, an official from the Pentagon.
The group of House Republicans caused a scene in the basement of the Capitol Hill by storming and occupying the SCIF (Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility) where those three committees were attempting to depose Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Laura Cooper, documenting the incursion on social media, and even ordering pizza and food to the room.
—Washington Examiner (@dcexaminer) October 24, 2019
—Natalie Andrews (@nataliewsj) October 23, 2019
For the past several weeks, Republican members of Congress have complained about the way House Democrats have conducted the inquiry — mostly hearing witness testimony and reviewing documents behind-closed-doors, shutting out Republicans.
The congressmen's stunt was not perceived as a show of resistance, but widely denounced and mocked as both publicity stunt, and more importantly, one that compromised national security and revealed hypocrisy.
Their claim that the GOP is being shut out of the process — which ostensibly served as the basis for the storming of the room — also doesn't make much sense. A total of 46 House Republicans, including 12 of the ones who participated in the SCIF storming, sit on one of those three committees and are able to participate in every step of the inquiry.
Not only has the Republican Party adopted Trump's rhetoric of embodying the law and order party, but Republicans hammered 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton over allegations that she breached national security by keeping State Department emails on a private server.
Many members of Congress brought their cell phones into the room to live-tweet or live-stream the stampede — a major breach of protocol that poses major national security and cybersecurity risks.
Members of Congress are strictly prohibited from bringing any electronic devices at all into the SCIF — which is designed to be an extremely secure facility for committees to hear ultra-classified information on urgent national security matters.
Glenn Carle, a former CIA covert operative, told Insider's Sonam Sheth that bringing cellphones into the room is especially problematic because they are "essentially microphones for sophisticated intelligence services" because "services can implant code remotely — from phishing and various attacks — into the phones, which could capture emissions in a given range, and then transmit them later."
After the incursion, Capitol Police had to sweep the room for electronic devices and the Sergeant at Arms even had to get involved.
The GOP's publicity stunt succeeded in capturing the media's attention and temporarily delaying Cooper's testimony.
But the storming of the SCIF ultimately won't succeed in slowing down the pace of the impeachment inquiry or do anything to substantially rebut the allegations at the heart of the inquiry.
The failure of their stunt and the panic around Taylor's testimony further highlights the lack of a coherent messaging strategy from either the White House or Congress. And with more testimony coming out every day, GOP members of Congress will still be stuck improvising a defense as they go along.