WASHINGTON — If there was any doubt before, it was inarguable by midmorning Wednesday that the U.S. House of Representatives is in unmitigated chaos.
U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, used that word — "chaos" — unprompted when asked to describe the scene.
"Just look at the crowds and all the craziness that's been going on around Capitol Hill," he said. "So in my opinion, I think this is the height of everything we've been dealing with since I arrived [in 2017]."
This week, Texans have often been at the center of the mayhem surrounding the Democratic-led impeachment inquiry into whether President Donald Trump withheld military aid from the Ukrainian government in order to exact a promise to investigate the business activities in that country of Hunter Biden, the son of former Vice President Joe Biden, one of Trump's top potential rivals in the 2020 presidential election.
The tension escalated into a full-blown scuffle Wednesday morning when a band of several dozen House Republicans, who had the blessing of their party leadership, forced their way into one of the most secure rooms of the Capitol in order to disrupt the impeachment testimony. The room is one of the most off-limits places in the entire complex, so much so that a number of House members have never been inside.
The group included several Texans, including U.S. Reps. Brian Babin of Woodville, Louie Gohmert of Tyler and Pete Olson of Sugar Land. House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, a Louisiana Republican, was also involved. Most of those members did not have permission to enter the room because they do not serve on the three committees assigned to investigate the matter — the U.S. House committees on foreign affairs, oversight and government reform, and intelligence.
A number of members had their cellphones with them when they forced their way into the room — a grievous violation of protocol within the space, known at the Secure Compartmented Information Facility, due to concerns about foreign malware infecting the room's security. At one point Wednesday afternoon, Gohmert relayed comments from inside the SCIF via a "secure line" to his staff to post on Twitter.
“I am currently in the SCIF with my colleagues, w/out our phones,” the account stated. “We plan on staying here until we negotiate a resolution."
The incident was the second time in two days a Texan was involved in a blowup in a secure room.
U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, R-Austin, lit into House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, a Democrat, in a closed-door hearing Tuesday. In testimony at the hearing, the American acting ambassador to Ukraine, William Taylor, reportedly directly linked Trump's withholding of military aid to the aim for political support.
Two sources in the room characterized Roy as yelling at Schiff. Roy described the exchange Wednesday on Twitter as "pointed." In an interview with The Texas Tribune, he declined to say whether he yelled at the chairman.
"I was making my voice heard in light of the fact that the chairman was not responding," he said.
Roy added that he was upset over the fact that House members not appointed to those committees are not allowed in the hearings, calling his access through the oversight committee "a golden ticket." Furthermore, Roy echoed other Republicans' complaints that even members of the relevant committees were facing difficulty accessing the full transcripts of proceedings and Democrats were releasing information in a "cherry-picking fashion."
Additionally, Roy expressed frustration over how much of the members' time the investigation was consuming, at the expense of other legislative priorities.
Roy said he spoke up at the hearing after more senior Republican members had delivered their introductory remarks.
"I got up at the beginning ... and I said, 'Well, hold on a second, Mr. Chairman.' And the chairman wouldn't recognize me, and I said 'Mr. Chairman ... I try to be respectful of the committee, but I need to talk. Mr. Chairman, Mr. Chairman, Mr. Chairman.' Nobody [was] recognizing me. Finally, I just kind of talked over him and basically made the point that we ought to be able to see the transcripts."
Roy said Schiff repeatedly tried to quiet him, but he continued to try to make his point.
"I ended up ultimately relenting after a while and making noise to try to make the point," he said. "Again, not trying to be disrespectful. They're in the majority. They can set the process, but this ought to be more transparent."
Schiff is increasingly the focal point of GOP opposition to impeachment. On Monday night, the House voted to table a resolution to censure him. The roll call vote fell along party lines, both in the larger U.S. House and within the Texas delegation. A source close to Schiff declined to comment or confirm the incident with Roy but pointed to a Schiff tweet posted Monday evening.
"It will be said of House Republicans, When they found they lacked the courage to confront the most dangerous and unethical president in American history, They consoled themselves by attacking those who did," the chairman wrote.
Democrats say the reasoning behind the closed-door hearings is to prevent witnesses from coordinating their testimonies and to avoid the circus-like nature of a recent Judiciary Committee hearing involving former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. Additionally, Democrats charge that Republicans are trying to discredit the process rather than focus on the meat of the testimony.
Not all Republicans were on board with the SCIF scuffle, with some GOP House members expressing disbelief and calling the move "crazy" outside the House chamber. Others privately wondered about the political efficacy of such a move.
One of the more senior Democratic Texans, U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey of Fort Worth, appeared startled.
"That was crazy. That was absolutely crazy," he said. "The Republicans are obviously trying to create ... a distraction to deal with the fact that some very explosive testimony was heard. And in their districts, Trump is popular, especially in the more rural and outlying suburban areas — and he's going to remain that way. And instead of doing what's right for the country, they want to make sure they keep this group happy, and it's a big problem.
"It makes it hard for them to act on something that's so obvious. ... There was definitely a quid pro quo, based on the testimony that was heard," he added.
Across the Capitol grounds, U.S. Rep. Mac Thornberry held one of his routine news conferences with reporters Wednesday. Like every other exchanges with reporters that he has hosted as the top Republican at the Armed Services Committee, he reminded the press of his belief that the military is not adequately funded. But there, too, he echoed the points of Roy on Tuesday and his colleagues who were storming the SCIF.
"If the Democrats intend to pursue this as the grounds of impeachment, they are going to have to do a lot more to build credibility," he said, dismissing the closed-door nature of the investigation.
Thornberry said he had not read the opening remarks from the ambassador's Tuesday testimony but said he had closely read the readout of the president's July call with the Ukrainian president.
"It is inappropriate, in my view, to ask a foreign leader to investigate a political opponent. ... I think it is inappropriate," he said. "Whether it is impeachable is another question. ... I don't think so, based on that transcript. I don't think that's bribery, treason, high crimes or misdemeanors."