Amid protests, turmoil, and transparency issues, FL lawmakers in Congress skipped many closed-door impeachment proceedings

Flanked by about two dozen House Republicans, U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida speaks during a press conference Oct. 23, 2019 in Washington, D.C., to call for transparency in the Trump impeachment inquiry. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — On a Monday in mid-October, Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz barged into an impeachment inquiry deposition he wasn’t authorized to attend. 

“Mr. Gaetz, you’re not permitted to be in the room,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, a California Democrat, told Gaetz, according to a transcript of the testimony of former White House national security aide Fiona Hill. 

Gaetz refused to leave. “I am on the Judiciary Committee.” 

Members of the Judiciary Committee weren’t authorized to attend the hearing, Schiff told Gaetz. “Please leave.”

He told Gaetz to take his statement to the press. “They do you no good here,” Schiff added. “So, please, absent yourself.” 

After some further quarreling about the rules, Gaetz left the room, the transcript shows.

The following week, Gaetz and other Republicans staged a press conference and then delayed the testimony of another witness for several hours by staging a sit-in in the secure area, where they ordered pizza and Chick-fil-A. 

U.S. Capitol. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

But even as Gaetz and other House Republicans have derided the closed-door proceedings of the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump, the Florida Republicans who did have access to the depositions appear to have skipped the vast majority of them.

The Florida Democrats on the relevant panels also appear to have missed many of the depositions. 

An analysis of transcripts from the 17 closed-door depositions that have been released by House lawmakers shows that the four Florida Republicans with access to the depositions missed most of them. 

Rep. Francis Rooney, a Florida Republican who has suggested he’s open to impeaching the president, was listed as present at four of the depositions for which transcripts have been released. Rooney sits on the Foreign Affairs Committee, one of the three panels that had access to those private hearings. 

Lawmakers may have entered some of the depositions after the attendance was logged, in which case their presence would not necessarily have been noted in the transcripts. 

Rooney’s office did not respond to a request for comment about his attendance. 

Republican Rep. Brian Mast of Florida, another member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, was listed as present on three of the transcripts. 

His office did not respond to a request for comment about his attendance, but Mast told the Florida Phoenix in an interview earlier this month that he had heard “a good portion” of what the witnesses had to say prior to the launch of the public impeachment hearings.

Mast said he hadn’t heard anything so far that would cause him to vote to impeach the president. 

“There was no quid pro quo, it just simply didn’t exist,” Mast said, referring to the accusation that the Trump administration was withholding military aid from Ukraine in order to pressure that country to investigate Trump’s political rival, former Vice President and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. 

Rep. Ted Yoho, another Florida Republican on the Foreign Affairs panel, attended only one of the 17 depositions, according to the transcripts. 

Yoho told CNN in October that he hadn’t attended any of the depositions.

“I have other responsibilities in the House and I see this as a sideshow,” he said. That same day, Yoho did attend the deposition of a White House national security official, Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, according to the transcript. 

Republican Rep. Greg Steube of Florida, a member of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, attended one deposition on Oct. 17, featuring testimony from Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union. 

“Given the format of the closed door secret hearings, I did not choose to legitimize an illegitimate process by attending other hearings,” Steube said in a statement. 

“Behind those closed doors, Republican members were not allowed to ask questions. When they were, they were limited in scope and only allowed after hours of staff questioning,” Steube added.

“Instead of wasting time sitting in on this sham impeachment, I focused on work that benefits the people of Florida, including meeting with constituents, introducing legislation, and fighting for conservative values in my other two committees, the House Judiciary Committee and the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.”

Three Florida Democrats have also had access to the closed-door depositions: Reps. Val Demings, Ted Deutch and Debbie Wasserman Schultz. They sit on the intelligence, foreign affairs and oversight panels, respectively. 

Demings was listed as present on eight of the 17 transcripts, and also attended two of the others, according to her office. 

“I attended every deposition possible while still fulfilling my other congressional responsibilities,” she told the Phoenix in a statement.

“I closely reviewed the testimony from all of our witnesses. That testimony all corroborates the unfortunate fact that President Trump abused his power by pressuring a foreign government to investigate his political rival. I hope that my Republican colleagues will accept that they now have a responsibility to put the principles of our republic above their loyalty to the president.”

Wasserman Schultz was listed as present at five of the 17 depositions and Deutch was named on three. Their offices did not provide further details about which hearings they attended. 

Demings, Deutch, Gaetz, Steube and Democratic Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell are the five Florida members of the Judiciary Committee, which is expected to draft articles of impeachment against Trump. That committee announced Tuesday that it has scheduled its first impeachment hearing for Dec. 4. 

Arizona Mirror Editor Jim Small contributed to this report.