Doors to the Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF) are seen where closed-door hearings and depositions are held with the House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight committees at the U.S. Capitol on November 4, 2019 in Washington, DC.

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Primary Source

Inside, But Mostly Outside, the Impeachment Chamber of Secrets

A reporters’ diary of covering a story taking place largely behind closed doors.

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Two heavy wooden doors thud to a close, echoing across the marble underbelly of the U.S. Capitol.

The click-boom as the door latches signifies movement in and out of the SCIF, a congressional situation room of sorts, where witnesses to the events that imperil Donald Trump’s presidency are ushered in and out with militaristic efficiency past a crush of clamoring reporters and photographers.

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This is the proverbial room where it happens — a storied and mysterious place in which witnesses spill secrets that could lead to the third impeachment in U.S. history — and no one on the outside will ever know the full extent of what transpired.

As Republicans gleefully point out, the Trump impeachment inquiry can best be understood by those doors, emblazoned with a scarlet sign reading “Restricted Area — No public or media access.”

For weeks, we’ve spent entire days stationed outside the SCIF (Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, pronounced skiff) waiting.

And waiting.

And waiting, hoping to catch a glimpse of the men and women who submit to lawmakers’ interrogation and, if we’re lucky, a morsel of new information from a lawyer or a lawmaker who might be in the mood to dish.

And that’s how the story of the Trump impeachment is being written. Most of what you know about the effort to remove the 45th president of the United States has been cobbled together haphazardly by a band of haggard, underfed and sleep-deprived congressional reporters scrounging for slivers of information in a corridor where the WiFi barely works and cell service is a crapshoot.

Winning often comes down to superior logistics and, more often, sheer luck. A major break in the public’s understanding of the impeachment of the president can be as simple as being positioned smartly when a chatty lawmaker breaks toward the nearby elevator bank or beelines for the spiral staircase that leads up toward the publicly accessible rooms of the Capitol.

Most of the day, though, we’re just staring. Staring at those heavy wooden doors, sometimes for hours at a time, waiting to ask questions that will never be answered. While we wait, we text friendly lawmakers and sources off the Hill, attempting to cobble together our best estimation of what that day’s witnesses will tell Congress. Obtaining a witness’ opening statement is often the pinnacle of that day’s news gathering.

We get scolded by staff when we peer too deeply inside the flag-lined lobby of the secret chamber, where we catch brief glimpses of when witnesses, lawmakers and other intelligence community briefers traverse that vaunted threshold. And God forbid one of us aims a camera in that direction.

All of it has bred something of a SCIF subculture inside the Capitol Hill press corps, among the dozen or so print reporters and dozens more TV correspondents, photographers and cameramen who make that hallway their second home for as many as 10 or 12 hours a day. We’re so conditioned to jump at the loud click that comes when the SCIF doors open that many of us have physical reactions to similar sounds that happen even when we’re at home.

We joke about the mad-dash sprints up and down those treacherous spiral staircases as lawmakers speed-walk past, often on fake phone calls, to avoid discussing their knowledge of what witnesses told them. We all make split-second decisions to anticipate whether lawmakers leaving the SCIF will break left toward the elevator bank or right toward the stairs, knowing that an incorrect choice could mean missing that day’s best quote or tidbit of information.

As we stand with our laptops on a ledge overlooking the staircase, we watch each other too, making gut-level calculations about whether it’s worth chasing Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) — the leader of the impeachment inquiry — even though he’s being swarmed and isn’t likely to make impromptu news, or whether we should try to corner a lower-profile lawmaker who might guide us through the day’s events. A clutch of Republican investigators talks to us more frequently, unleashing broadsides against Democrats and asserting that the witnesses are defusing — not accelerating — impeachment.

Lawmakers who do stop are quickly mobbed, as scoop-starved reporters seek just enough info to pop a quick tweet for hungry readers — and editors.

There’s a code of camaraderie outside the SCIF, too. When lawmakers or witnesses are spotted heading toward the facility or exiting, those of us closest to the action will call ahead to our colleagues on other floors to let them know where to station themselves for a second chance to ask a crucial question. Shouts of “heads-up!” reverberating up those spiral stairs jolt everyone to attention.

When it’s clear a lawmaker isn’t going to spill his or her guts about that day’s testimony, we often ask the only thing likely to get a substantive response: How much longer will the interview go? We’ve become so jaded that even when the answer is “almost done,” we brace ourselves for several more hours of waiting and use the time to replenish our depleted caffeine.

Friendships have formed outside the SCIF, which first become a home away from home for reporters during the GOP-led House Russia investigation. Reporters take turns monitoring the door while others sprint for a much-needed bathroom or coffee break. Others sprawl out on the floor, dorm-room style, as the day wears on and the rules of professional decorum slip with our energy levels. We lament missing the sunshine as we remain rooted to our underground outpost. And we trade in the gallows humor that has become a necessary mechanism to cope with the daily grind, wondering what the outside world used to be like when we were allowed to take part in it.

We’ve also become something of a tourist attraction. Staffers frequently stroll past the SCIF leading large groups of their boss’ constituents, and the sight of a throng of cameras and the mobile office reporters have set up in the hallway prompts a lot of gawking, selfies and demands for top-secret information.

That captive audience of a large swath of the D.C. press corps has also made us a target for headline-grabbing lawmakers seeking to create a circus-like spectacle.

That was the case on the morning House Republicans decided to storm the SCIF, ostensibly in protest of the strict limits on which lawmakers were allowed inside the closed-door depositions. The typically serene corridor was suddenly overrun with lawmakers as they wrenched open those heavy doors and poured inside, brandishing livestreaming phones typically forbidden inside the secure facility.

The witness scheduled to be deposed that day, Pentagon official Laura Cooper, waited in an anteroom for more than five hours while Capitol Hill security officials swept the SCIF for security breaches.

Meanwhile, reporters still stationed outside learned in the same piecemeal fashion as always that in the ordinarily sacrosanct SCIF, Republicans confronted Democrats, shouting matches ensued and the impeachment probe, for a few hours, ground to a halt. A few hardcore GOP lawmaker-protesters camped out long enough to have pizza delivered.

Democrats exited the SCIF angry and ready to vent to reporters and slam their GOP colleagues for what they viewed as a publicity stunt meant to distract from the damning evidence being uncovered as part of the impeachment inquiry.

In a matter of days, all of this will be forgotten. Transcripts of the depositions are dribbling out. The remaining witnesses are refusing to testify. The closed-door phase of the impeachment inquiry is wrapping up and will give way to public hearings that are certain to capture the nation’s attention and start a new chapter in the story of Trump’s impeachment.

And instead of getting scraps, you’ll be able to see the entire thing on your TV screens — unedited, unfiltered and, in all likelihood, as combative as ever.

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