Utah Rep. Chris Stewart, a Trump defender, misses half of the impeachment hearings

Washington • An angry group of Republicans in October stormed a secure room in the Capitol where depositions were being taken in the House’s impeachment inquiry, shouting “Let us in! Let us in!”

The lawmakers refused to leave for hours and demanded to be part of the closed-door proceedings.

Rep. Chris Stewart, a Utah Republican who has been a vocal critic of the Democrats’ effort to impeach President Donald Trump, was there as the frustration boiled from Republicans incensed over the secretive nature of the hearings held in a basement room accessible only to a select few members of Congress.

Stewart, who as a member of the House Intelligence Committee had free rein to join the hearings, wasn’t part of the chant.

He could go in — if he chose to do so.

(Photo illustration by Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, was absent from half of the closed-door hearings in which impeachment inquiry witnesses were questioned, according to newly released transcripts of the testimony. He attended just four of eight, according to the documents. His office, however, says that he attended every one conducted "while Congress was in session."

The Utah congressman, though, has attended only half of the impeachment hearings, according to transcripts of the depositions released so far. His office confirmed he was in Utah for four of the eight hearings in Washington of which transcripts have been made public.

“The congressman attended every deposition that was held while Congress was in session,” Stewart's spokeswoman Madison Shupe said.

That means that Stewart — who wrote in an opinion piece Oct. 30 that, “I’ve heard from nearly every witness" — was present for some key witnesses while absent for several others.

In defending Trump, the Utah representative has railed against what he sees as Democrats grasping at straws to attack the president, echoing a common theme among Republicans that the entire impeachment inquiry is much ado about nothing.

Not a single witness has said this is criminal activity,” Stewart told “Fox News Sunday” recently.

That doesn’t count the revised testimony by Gordon Sondland, a major Trump donor and the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, who has said there was a quid pro quo: the Trump administration’s leveraging of millions of dollars in military aid and a White House meeting with Ukraine’s new president contingent on that country launching an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter.

Joe Biden is a leading Democratic presidential contender.

Stewart was present for Sondland’s initial testimony to the impeachment inquiry when he said there was no quid pro quo, but he skipped out on testimony of the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, who said she was removed from her post unceremoniously because of pressure by Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani. Others have backed up Yovanovitch’s testimony taken under oath.

Stewart also missed the deposition of William B. Taylor Jr., the top American diplomat in Ukraine, who said it was his understanding as well that there was an explicit quid pro quo tying aid to Ukraine agreeing to probe the Bidens and interference in the 2016 presidential election.

The Utah congressman also wasn’t present, according to the transcript for the depositions of Kurt Volker, the former U.S. special envoy for Ukraine negotiations, Fiona Hill, who was a top official on the National Security Council, or George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state responsible for Ukraine.

Several more depositions are expected to be released by the three committees looking at possible wrongdoing that could lead to articles of impeachment, and it’s unclear how many hearings Stewart attended.

Behind closed doors

Stewart is one of many Republicans who have blasted the impeachment inquiry because so far hearings have been held in a secure room where only members of the Intelligence, Foreign Affairs, and Oversight and Government Reform committees are allowed. Transcripts of depositions were available only to those members as well until the more recent decision to release them publicly.

The Utah congressman complained in an opinion piece in the Deseret News on Oct. 30 about the process, charging that if there was any wrongdoing, the Democrats would have held public hearings.

In fact, Democrats plan to do so starting this week and have been trickling out depositions from the previous closed-door hearings to let the public see what the witnesses have said. It’s typical in the beginning of an investigation to keep witness statements under wraps, as Republicans did in their investigation of the terrorist attacks in Benghazi, Libya, that killed three Americans.

Stewart said in that op-ed that “week after week I’ve attended these hearings” but found nothing that would serve as evidence to remove Trump from office.

“I have been a part of these impeachment proceedings from the very first day,” Stewart wrote. “I’ve heard from nearly every witness. I remain unconvinced that there is evidence of a crime, much less a high crime, as the Constitution prescribes for an impeachable offense.”

Stewart’s office did not respond to a specific question about that statement, given the congressman wasn’t at several depositions nor did his office say whether he had reviewed the transcripts afterward.

It is true that many depositions were scheduled during weeks when the House was in recess and many of the hearings lasted eight to 10 hours.

Stewart’s office notes that the congressman has stayed in Washington for several depositions where scheduled witnesses were no-shows. Several Trump administration officials have refused to testify in accord with the president’s orders, an issue that is now being litigated by some of those officials who were subpoenaed.

A spokesperson for the House Intelligence Committee did not respond to questions about attendance at the hearings beyond the members listed in the transcripts.

Missing out

Stewart isn’t the only Utahn allowed into the impeachment inquiry hearings — and is not alone in missing out on testimony.

Rep. John Curtis is a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee and, according to the transcripts, has been to one of the eight hearings for which the depositions have been released.

Curtis’ office says he actually has attended portions of six depositions, even if the transcript doesn’t show him there.

“He has done his best to attend as many as possible, but many have been scheduled by Democratic committee chairs and leadership at the same times as multiple impeachment inquiry events,” said Curtis spokeswoman Ally Riding.

The 3rd District representative has been far less vocal than Stewart on the merits of allegations against the president.

He introduced legislation previously, however, to allow every House member access to hearing tapes and transcripts.

And, in an Oct. 28 letter to Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff released publicly, he complained about a “rushed process” in which House members were expected to vote on impeachment inquiry rules without previous access to hundreds or thousands of pages of witness testimony transcripts.

“While I have made an active effort to attend as many closed-door depositions as possible, I have been unable to attend every deposition. This is in large part due to simultaneous hearings being held by various Committees on which I serve,” he wrote.

“I take my responsibility to listen to all the facts very seriously and I cannot be expected to be in two rooms at once. Further, my staff, and most of my colleagues, are not allowed to attend in my place to brief me on the depositions after the fact.”

Curtis’ spokeswoman, Riding, said the representative is committed to attending to other matters of importance to his constituents.

“Congressman Curtis has said from the beginning that while oversight is important, he is also here to advance legislation that benefits Utah’s 3rd District — and at times that resulted in missing parts of depositions to vote in the other committee he serves on, voting on the House floor or sitting down with constituents to hear their concerns and priorities.”

In accord with a resolution approved Oct. 31 by the House on a party-line vote (just two Democrats opposed it and not a single Republican approved), the Intelligence Committee is now in charge of gathering facts and forwarding them to the House Judiciary Committee, which will decide whether to advance articles of impeachment. No Utahns sit on the House Judiciary Committee.

As the impeachment inquiry moves forward, and hearings are held publicly, it’s likely more members on the pertinent committees will be present to question witnesses. So far, most questions aside from Schiff, the chairman, and ranking Republican Devin Nunes, both of California, have been posed by the committee’s attorneys.

When TV cameras are present, it’s expected that most, if not all, individual members will join in the questioning.