View from the gallery: Senators struggle to sit in silence at Trump trial

Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) speaks with repoters on the first day of the impeachment trial against President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill in Washington on January 21, 2020. (Yuri Gripas/Abaca Press/TNS)
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By Todd Ruger CQ-Roll Call (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Sen. Lindsey Graham looked restless during the first hour of President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, when none of the senators had access to their cellphones and the president’s lawyers and the House managers traded procedural arguments.

It was an unusual first day of buttoned-down decorum for the exclusive club of 100 senators-turned-jurors, who were made to stay in their floor seats, not eat, not talk and not tweet during only the third presidential impeachment trial in U.S. history.

The press-friendly South Carolina Republican closed his eyes for a while. He roused himself and looked around at the ceilings and galleries. He took notes with a pencil on a white legal pad.

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Graham yawned repeatedly, or looked around at his colleagues as if he hoped to share a glance. But he found his colleagues immersed in their own note taking or watching the argument of lead impeachment manager Rep. Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif.

So at the first recess, two hours in, Graham burst out his observations in a pair of tweets. “Quite frankly, having Adam Schiff lecture the Senate about fairness and due process is like listening to an arsonist talk about fire prevention,” Graham tweeted.

He wasn’t the only one. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., retrieved his phone during the break to criticize arguments from White House counsel Pat Cipollone for “personal insults and falsehoods.”

Democratic presidential candidate and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota responded to a suggestion from Trump’s lawyers that she is upset because she’s at the trial instead of campaigning in Iowa. “No. This is my constitutional duty. And I can do two things at once,” Klobuchar tweeted during the break.

Inside the chamber, there were physical differences that evoked the feeling of a momentous event. Extra tables cram the areas where senators usually mingle or cast votes. Chairs for Trump lawyers and a team of Democratic House impeachment managers fill the floor. Temporary televisions display video evidence.

When video clips were played during the Democratic impeachment managers’ arguments, the partisan divide in the chamber was personified beyond the traditional seating on each side of the center aisle. As senators took in the video, they turned their heads to the screens closest to them, away from their colleagues across the aisle.

Arguments and logistics are low-tech, even when video clips are allowed. An aide seated with the Democratic House impeachment managers held up a sheet of paper with “10 minutes” and then “5 minutes” while Rep. Zoe Lofgren spoke, warning the California Democrat that her speaking time was winding down.

During arguments, the unusual position of the podium might have disoriented regular Senate watchers. The television cameras showed speakers in front of the dark marble rostrum, instead of a typical backdrop of blue carpet and warm wood when senators give speeches from a desk.

The galleries above the floor weren’t packed, thanks in part to a 15-minute limit for regular tickets. Actress and activist Alyssa Milano was seated in the front row of the gallery, behind the Republican senators. She wore black and had her hair pulled into a tight bun, and sometimes pulled her glasses out to read something.

Former Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona spent time watching the proceedings from the gallery behind his former GOP colleagues. He sat alone in the front row of the section. House Republican firebrand Louie Gohmert of Texas sat in the back row of the Senate chamber along the wall, where staffers usually sit.

The trial had a strong schoolhouse vibe, with senators at their small desks, seated in rows, No. 2 pencils at the ready. The senators faced forward and sat silently, taking notes and even passing notes between each other.

Democrats had identical large white binders with blue cover pages on their desks in the chamber. Some flipped through them, but many sat untouched in the corner of the desks while senators took notes.

As Cipollone began to speak in favor of the rules resolution offered by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, staffers for McConnell and then Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer moved the lecterns from atop the leaders’ desks to a lower level so they could view the speaker while seated, unobstructed.

McConnell’s gaze never left Schiff as the Democrat made the House’s case for rules changes that would, among other things, allow the Senate to subpoena witnesses and documents.

McConnell sitting just feet away from the podium where the House Intelligence Committee chairman spoke, sat upright, and rarely blinked. Just across the aisle from McConnell, Schumer slouched, though he appeared just as focused as McConnell on Schiff’s opening statement. Neither McConnell nor Schiff took notes.

Sen. Susan Collins, the Maine Republican who is a target for Democrats in this year’s elections, sat a row behind McConnell and took notes as if what was being spoken would be on a final exam, filling more than a page of her legal pad.

Collins apparently filled the page of a legal pad during Schiff’s opening statement. She flipped to a fresh page during Trump attorney Jay Sekulow’s opening remarks, and filled that page with notes after Sekulow yielded to Cipollone.

Other note takers: Republican Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Cory Gardner of Colorado, John Thune of South Dakota, Rob Portman of Ohio and Charles E. Grassley of Iowa.

Other senators appeared focused but less studious. Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, looked on intently as each presenter spoke. Klobuchar sat in the back row, arms often crossed, focused on the speakers.

A little more than an hour into the proceedings, Nebraska Republican Ben Sasse, sitting in the back row of the Republican side of the chamber, popped something into his mouth — maybe gum, or more likely a snack, which would violate the rules of the trial. Later, he snuck a bag of beef jerky into his desk.

On the other side of the chamber, Democratic Sens. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, Michael Bennet of Colorado and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island briefly whispered to each other as Cipollone wrapped up his statement.

During Schiff’s argument, an aide delivered a note to Schumer. He responded longhand below whatever the original note said, scrawling multiple lines. He handed it back to staff, who scooted past Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., to send the note back to whence it came.

Sen. Mark Warner appeared close to falling asleep as he rested his head on his hand around 1:50 p.m., only to be stirred by Schiff playing a video of Trump remarks.

Around 2 p.m., a staffer brought Grassley a black binder and something in a plastic sandwich-size bag, the latter of which he put in his open desk drawer.

Senate pages experienced work as waiters and waitresses, surveying all the desks and fetching empty water glasses and returning with full ones. Among glasses that needed refills by 2:15 p.m. were those on the desks of Collins and Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Josh Hawley of Missouri and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana.

Shortly before 3:00 p.m., the Senate adjourned for its first 15-minute recess. Alabama Republican Sen. Richard Shelby shook Cipollone’s hand, then McConnell and Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr of North Carolina huddled with the White House counsel.

Graham shook Jay Sekulow’s hand before joining a chat among Collins, Murkowski and Republican Sens. Jim Risch of Idaho and Roy Blunt of Missouri.

After the Republicans’ chat broke up, New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand emerged from the Democratic cloakroom with a plastic grocery bag in hand, the contents of which she deposited into her desk.

The senators got more comfortable after the break. Cassidy munched away on a candy bar with no attempt to hide his forbidden treat. The metallic wrapper glistened each time he raised the bar to his mouth, while he took notes with his other hand. He ate fallen bits off his desk by pressing them into his finger and then licking his finger.

During Lofgren’s long speech, Sanders struggled to take a plastic wrapper off a box of mints or something similar. He eventually took his keys out of his pocket, attempting to muffle the jangle, and cut off the plastic. He then blew his nose and deposited the crumpled tissue on his desk.

Schiff spoke at length on an amendment offered by Schumer to the rules resolution for the trial, but he wasn’t permitted to speak forever.

As his time expired around 4:30 p.m., North Dakota Republican John Hoeven made a “c’mon” gesture, extending his two hands outward as Schiff left the podium.

Only then could the senators speak. They could only say one word though, aye or nay, as they voted on Schumer’s amendment. And when they did, it reflected the chamber’s party breakdown, with senators voting 53-47 to table, or kill, the minority leader’s initial amendment to subpoena documents.

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(Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.)
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