As House Democrats plow ahead with closed-door impeachment hearings, some Republicans have come up with a winning public relations strategy of their own: Riot.
Wednesday’s impeachment sit-in, led by far-right Congressman Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), saw 30 GOP Representatives rush a private meeting in the House Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF) and effectively shut down the ongoing impeachment testimony for five hours. The chaos caused consternation on both sides of the aisle.
Progressive Congressman Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) compared the scene to “fraternity” hijinks, and said it reminded him of the film Animal House. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) had stronger words.
“Our country is a game to them,” she posted on Twitter. “Remember that the next time they use “national security” as an excuse for their bad ideas.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) called the incident “nuts,” but later walked back his words, saying that he understood their frustration.
But in spite of condemnation, Republicans have successfully distracted and redirected the news story from the ongoing testimony about President Donald Trump’s phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on which he was accused of offering the quid pro quo of a White House visit and essential military aid in exchange for investigating his 2020 political opponents and the 2016 presidential election.
“In the short-term it’s a winning move,” said Evan Siegfried, CEO of the public affairs firm Somm Consulting and GOP strategist. “No one was talking about [Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary] Laura Cooper’s testimony on Wednesday, it was wall-to-wall sit-in coverage with left-leaning outlets saying ‘how dare they do this’ and right-leaning outlets saying ‘maybe this was a good idea.’ Either way, they changed the topic of discussion and ran interference.”
Trump was reportedly very happy with the strategy and the results. White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said on Fox & Friends Thursday morning that “I think they showed full support for the president. He was happy to see it happen. He was very supportive of it as he should be.”
The president later tweeted his appreciation.
“Thank you to House Republicans for being tough, smart, and understanding in detail the greatest Witch Hunt in American History,” he wrote. “It has been going on since long before I even got Elected (the Insurance Policy!)”
Some lawmakers who stormed the SCIF Wednesday produced illegal phone recordings from the room, which is a sensitive area where cellphones are banned because of potential threats to national security.
“I’m glad they did it. The Dems have been doing everything behind closed doors and in secret and so it’s about time somebody made a very bold stand, which is I guess a sit-in, which is what they did. And it was great, and the point was well taken,” said Grisham.
In the aftermath of the sit-in, 13 Republican Congressmen held a press conference in which they did not mention the impeachment allegations against the president and instead focused on what they considered to be the unfairness of closed-door meetings.
They also left out that nearly a quarter of all Republicans in the House have access to the ongoing depositions because of their committee roles. Seven Republican leaders have access to every meeting: House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas), Rep. Scott Perry (R-Penn.), Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.), and Rep. Greg Pence (R-Ind.)
Still, the ongoing decision to focus on transparency and secret meetings appear to be working for Republicans.
“If you were going to take a private poll, these Republicans probably don’t believe what they’re pushing. But at the end of the day this is a political fight, that’s what it all comes down to. And politically for a Republican to cross this president, it doesn’t end well for them,” said Siegfried.
Democrats, however, are expected to begin to take impeachment hearings public as early as next month, at which point Republicans will need to find a new strategy.
At that point, said Siegfried, Republicans will focus on former vice president and 2020 presidential candidate Joe Biden: “I think you’ll see a lot of members of the GOP who participated in the sit-in start pushing conspiracy that focuses on Biden.”
They’ll also work to blur the lines between an impeachment hearing and criminal trial while pushing the narrative that the president is being denied his due process rights, he explained. Impeachment inquiries are not trials, and due process is not required.
“Impeachment is more of an unscheduled performance review by human resources (the regularly scheduled one is an election),” said Siegfried. “It’s more ‘did something wrong occur here and is action required?’”
Republicans have already hinted that they’ll produce their own report on the impeachment proceedings to counter the conclusion made by Democrats.
“Democrats are going to get a report from the Democrats, Republicans are going to get a report from Republicans,” Meadows told Politico. “And 435 members are going to have to make a decision on a very weighty issue based on a report that comes really through two or three staffers writing a report through each side.”
Late Thursday afternoon Graham, in conjunction with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and at least 39 other Republicans, introduced a resolution to officially condemn the impeachment inquiry. The resolution claims that Democrats have created a secretive, unfair impeachment process that intends to embarrass the president without giving him the chance to properly defend himself. The resolution will not reach the Senate floor until next week at the earliest.
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