A US House of Representatives impeachment inquiry devolved into chaos on Wednesday as Republican lawmakers, encouraged by the president to get tougher in fighting Democrats, stormed into a high-security hearing room and delayed testimony by a witness.
The more than two dozen Republican lawmakers, who were not authorized to attend the hearing, entered before Laura Cooper, the US defence official who oversees Ukraine and Russia matters, was due to testify behind closed doors before Republican and Democratic lawmakers.
The deposition is part of an impeachment enquiry into President Donald Trump over calls he made to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy asking him to investigate potential Democratic rival in next year’s race Joe Biden. Mr Zelenskiy agreed during the call. US security aid that had been approved by the US Congress but was being withheld from Ukraine was later provided.
The revelation about the call came from a whistleblower and due to the nature of some of the inquiry, the House has been carrying out the hearings in the Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF), a room in the Capitol building where neither electronics nor unauthorised members are allowed.
The Republicans yelled complaints that the Democrats in charge of the inquiry were conducting it in private, lawmakers and aides said. Republicans who are members of the three congressional committees conducting the inquiry have taken part in the process throughout.
As democrats prepared to enter and interview Ms Cooper, the republican members stormed in – many with their mobile phones in contravention of the rules – and delayed the hearing.
Around noon the republican lawmakers reportedly ordered pizzas from the Capitol Hill catering service and had it brought to the secure area.
Democrats considered calling the sergeant-at-arms to have their republican colleagues removed, but decided against it.
After a delay of about four hours, Ms Cooper was able to begin her testimony.
It was a dramatic confrontation in the House inquiry that threatens Mr Trump's presidency, even as he seeks re-election.
Federal election law prohibits candidates from accepting foreign help in an election, which the calls regarding Mr Biden may breach.
The content of the phone call was revealed by a whistleblower complaint against Trump by a person in a US intelligence agency.
The top Republicans on the three committees sent a letter to House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff on Wednesday calling on him to have the whistleblower testify publicly. They said Mr Schiff had decided that the committees would not hear the whistleblower's testimony. A spokesman for Mr Schiff declined to comment.
People familiar with the matter had said negotiations for the whistleblower's testimony were complicated. Mr Trump had suggested the person committed treason, leading Democrats to worry that their testimony could put them at risk of exposure.