A series of high profile witnesses have recently testified in US congressional hearings about Ukraine, particularly including Marie Yovanovitch (Oct. 11, 2019) and Gordon Sondland (Oct. 17, 2019). As far as I can tell, all such testimony has been given in closed-door hearings, with publication of some opening statements but without full or even redacted transcripts.

Why are these hearings being held behind closed doors? I assume the format is at the discretion of the (Democratic) House committee chairs, but why would they prefer this? Wouldn't they expect open testimony, with perhaps some bombshell video clips, to have a bigger impact on public opinion?

  • 5
    This is not primarily opinion-based as one of the answers below already is showing.
    – Alexei
    Commented Oct 18, 2019 at 14:58

3 Answers 3


According to the rules of both the Senate and House of Representatives, committee hearings may be held behind closed doors when they involve matters that could endanger national security, harm an ongoing investigation, cause a deep invasion of an individual's privacy, and a variety of other situations along those lines.

Presumably, the hearings on Ukraine have the potential to meet one these situations, and therefore they are closed as a precaution. It certainly wouldn't be surprising for them to meet the 'national security' and 'ongoing investigation' categories at the very least, according to what is already known about the situation.

The Senate rules can be found here, and the relevant part is in Section XXVI, paragraph 5(b):

Each meeting of a committee, or any subcommittee thereof, including meetings to conduct hearings, shall be open to the public, except that a meeting or series of meetings by a committee or a subcommittee thereof on the same subject for a period of no more than fourteen calendar days may be closed to the public on a motion made and seconded to go into closed session to discuss only whether the matters enumerated in clauses (1) through (6) would require the meeting to be closed, followed immediately by a record vote in open session by a majority of the members of the committee or subcommittee when it is determined that the matters to be discussed or the testimony to be taken at such meeting or meetings

(1) will disclose matters necessary to be kept secret in the interests of national defense or the confidential conduct of the foreign relations of the United States;

(2) will relate solely to matters of committee staff personnel or internal staff management or procedure;

(3) will tend to charge an individual with crime or misconduct, to disgrace or injure the professional standing of an individual, or otherwise to expose an individual to public contempt or obloquy, or will represent a clearly unwarranted invasion of the privacy of an individual;

(4) will disclose the identity of any informer or law enforcement agent or will disclose any information relating to the investigation or prosecution of a criminal offense that is required to be kept secret in the interests of effective law enforcement;

(5) will disclose information relating to the trade secrets of financial or commercial information pertaining specifically to a given person if

The House rules, found here, are similar, and the relevant section can be found on page 572 of the document:

(2)(A) Each hearing conducted by a committee or subcommittee (other than the Committee on Ethics or its subcommittees) shall be open to the public, including to radio, television, and still photography coverage, except when the committee or subcommittee, in open session and with a majority present, determines by record vote that all or part of the remainder of that hearing on that day shall be closed to the public because disclosure of testimony, evidence, or other matters to be considered would endanger national security, would compromise sensitive law enforcement information, or would violate a law or rule of the House.


So as not to allow witnesses to coordinate testimony. Furthermore, the reasoning seems to be that this is an initial investigation and it's being compared to a grand jury investigation and special counsel investigations which have preceded previous presidential impeachments. Those generally start with some form of closed doors testimony and investigation.

The Hill quotes from a letter by committee chairman Adam Schiff (I'll add that in if I find the link) addressing some of the criticisms including the closed door set-up of the hearings:

The Dear Colleague letter is designed to counter arguments from Republicans in both the White House and Congress that Democrats are conducting an invalid investigation, since their witness interviews are being held behind closed doors, outside the eyes of the public and lawmakers who don't sit on the three committees leading the investigations.

"At a time that it will not jeopardize investigative equities, we will make the interview transcripts public, subject to any necessary redactions for classified or sensitive information," Schiff wrote. "We also anticipate that at an appropriate point in the investigation, we will be taking witness testimony in public, so that the full Congress and the American people can hear their testimony firsthand," he added.

Schiff argued that it was important for the interviews to be conducted privately so that witnesses cannot coordinate testimony.

"It is of paramount importance to ensure that witnesses cannot coordinate their testimony with one another to match their description of events, or potentially conceal the truth," he wrote. "I am particularly sensitive to that issue given that during the Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Russia’s election interference, one witness, Michael Cohen, lied to the Committee about highly relevant issues and ultimately pled guilty for those lies."

MSNBC's Rachel Maddow quoted some more from the letter (which I still cannot find in full), from the transcript of that show (quoting from the letter):

Quote: The special counsels in the Nixon and Clinton impeachments conducted their investigations in private and we must initially do the same.

Maddow added to that (from the same MSNBC transcript):

That, of course, is why grand jury testimony is secret, right? That you don't want witnesses knowing what other witnesses have said, so they can't line up their witness testimony to match other people.


The purpose of the hearings should not be to produce bombshell soundbites edited out of context, or to allow the various representatives to grandstand.

They should be about gathering information in an orderly fashion. A number of issues may affect national security. They are asking former ambassadors about dealings with foreign governments, among other things. Splitting the testimony into public and non-public parts could be complicated and would defeat the purpose of openness.

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