When House managers arrived with the impeachment articles in a ceremonial procession Tuesday evening, Senate Republican leadership had already decreed that their arrival would be filmed only by a single, shared TV camera (partially obstructed, it turned out) at the doors of the chamber in which the mostly empty desks of Republican senators also could not be seen.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his team — the Senate sergeant-at-arms and Rules Committee make the decisions, but McConnell (R-Ky.) is the driving force behind the restrictions, people involved tell me — further decreed that journalists would be confined during the entire trial to roped-off pens, forbidden from approaching senators in Capitol corridors.
They also required journalists to clear a newly installed metal detector before entering the media seats above the chamber. Why? Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) suggested to PBS’s Lisa Desjardins, The Post’s Paul Kane and others that journalists might bug the chamber with surveillance equipment.
The GOP leadership likewise rejected a request from the Standing Committee of Correspondents to allow journalists to bring laptops or silenced phones into the chamber so they could write (the House allows this) or to allow cameras in to capture the history of the moment (the House allowed this during the impeachment process).
Republican senators (spooked by aggressive protests during Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation) claim they are following procedures used during Bill Clinton’s impeachment. But the new rules are more restrictive, even though the media landscape has entirely changed since 1999, when Twitter didn’t exist and cable news was in its infancy. Perhaps we should be grateful McConnell didn’t follow the Andrew Johnson impeachment precedent and ban television entirely?
It’s obvious what the restrictions are about, because they mirror McConnell’s general approach to the trial. He had signed on to a proposal to dismiss the House impeachment articles without a trial. He has resisted allowing documentary or testimonial evidence to surface during the trial. And now he’s doing everything in his power to shield senators from reporters — and from the public.
Because still and TV cameras aren’t allowed in the chamber, the only images will be C-SPAN-style footage from fixed TV cameras operated by government employees. The public won’t be able to see which senators are sleeping, talking or missing entirely.
McConnell’s team also decided to claw back seats typically reserved for the general public, to “augment” seating for their own friends and family; they’ll have at least 134 such seats. They offered no such augmentation for the media, which has 107 seats, only about 20 of which provide a full view of the Senate floor.
Nor can the senators be observed outside the chamber. At a private luncheon of Republican senators this week, Blunt showed where the media would be penned in and reportedly “joked” that the senators could now avoid reporters.
It’s a curious attempt at fortress-building after House Republicans noisily objected to House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) taking depositions in his “basement bunker.” They can’t quash the trial itself, but McConnell’s restrictions will go a long way toward restricting what the American public sees of this historic moment.
Wednesday, therefore, may have been the last moment to capture the candor of impeachment: the stain on House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler’s tie; Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Schiff chuckling together as House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) condemned them by name; Pelosi pumping her fist when McCarthy scolded her; Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) shaking his head while Pelosi spoke; and the American tapestry of the impeachment managers huddling with Pelosi: four men and three women; two African Americans and a Latina; a veteran from the Rockies; a police chief from central Florida; and representatives from the Atlantic, Gulf and Pacific coasts.
At sunset, after Pelosi declared a “threshold in American history” and signed the impeachment articles with multiple souvenir pens, the managers set off, two by two, through Statuary Hall and the rotunda — and into the darkness of McConnell’s Senate.
“If McConnell makes this the first trial in history without witnesses,” manager Schiff warned, “it will be exposed [as] an effort to cover up for the president.”
“Does the Senate conduct a trial?” asked manager Nadler. “Or does the Senate participate in the president’s crimes by covering them up?"
McConnell, in his attempt to restrict the public’s view of the trial, has made his intentions clear.
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