The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion ‘S.O.S.! PLEASE HELP ME!’ The world’s greatest deliberative body falls to pettifoggery.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. arrives on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. (Sarah Silbiger/REUTERS)
Placeholder while article actions load

Senate chaplain Barry Black began Wednesday’s session of President Trump’s impeachment trial by praying for God to give senators “civility built upon integrity.”

It was too much to ask.

Just minutes into the session, as lead House impeachment manager Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) presented his opening argument for removing the president, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) displayed on his desk a hand-lettered message with big block letters pleading: “S.O.S.”

Impeachment trial live updates

In case that was too subtle, he followed this later with another handwritten message pretending he was an abducted child:


Follow Dana Milbank's opinionsFollow


Paul wrote “IRONY ALERT” on another scrap of paper, and scribbled there an ironic thought. Nearby, a torn piece of paper concealed a crossword puzzle, which Paul set about completing while Schiff spoke. Eventually, even this proved insufficient amusement, and Paul, though required to be at his desk, left the trial entirely for a long block of time.

No one expected senators truly to honor their oath to be impartial. But Paul and some of his Republican colleagues aren’t even pretending to treat the proceedings with dignity.

Minutes before the trial opened in earnest on Wednesday, Paul took Trump up on the president’s stated wish to watch the trial from the “front row.” Paul tweeted a photo of a gallery ticket and said, “Mr. President, would love to have you as my guest during this partisan charade.”

Trump retweeted the message. (Unlike during President Bill Clinton’s impeachment, gallery tickets make no mention of an impeachment trial.)

Some of Paul’s Republican Senate colleagues were only slightly better behaved as the House managers presented the evidence.

President Trump's impeachment defense could create a dangerous precedent, says constitutional law professor Jonathan Turley. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AP/The Washington Post)

Marsha Blackburn (Tenn.) and Joni Ernst (Iowa) read press clippings. (Blackburn had talking points on her desk attacking the whistleblower.) Sessions begin with an admonition that “all persons are commanded to keep silence, on pain of imprisonment,” but Ernst promptly struck up a conversation with Dan Sullivan (Alaska), who talked with Ron Johnson (Wis.). Steve Daines (Mont.) walked over to have a word with Ben Sasse (Neb.) and Tim Scott (S.C.), who flashed a thumbs-up.

Lindsey Graham (S.C.) variously shook his head in disagreement with the managers, picked his teeth and yawned. Tom Cotton (Ark.) ordered up a glass of milk, then another, then unwrapped a chocolate bar to share with Ernst. An aisle over, James Risch (Idaho), who fell asleep during Tuesday’s session, talked loudly enough to be heard in the press gallery.

“Mr. Chief Justice, I do see a lot of members moving and taking a break,” said House impeachment manager Jason Crow (D-Colo.), who was trying to speak. “Would you like to take a break?”

“I think we can continue,” replied Chief Justice John Roberts, who had been perusing printouts of emails.

In fairness, the proceedings were lengthy, and tedious. When Schiff, after two hours, uttered the phrase “now let me turn to the second article,” the press gallery erupted in groans. Democrats appeared restless, too; Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) slouched low in his chair, head resting on chest, forehead in hand.

Some might have nodded off entirely but for Rives Miller Grogan, a conservative activist who burst into the chamber at 6 p.m. and screamed “Jesus Christ!” before police shoved him out. Grogan’s continued screaming — something about Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) being the devil — could be heard in the chamber, where senators, jolted to alertness, shared a bipartisan chuckle.

Roberts only once rebuked the behavior in the chamber. As Tuesday’s session bled into the early hours of Wednesday, impeachment manager Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) warned senators against making a “treacherous vote” for a “coverup.” White House counsel Pat Cipollone, a member of Trump’s defense team, said Nadler “should be embarrassed” and called on the Senate to “land this power trip.”

Roberts, admonishing both sides “to remember that they are addressing the world’s greatest deliberative body,” cited the lofty example of a 1905 impeachment trial when use of the word “pettifogging” — defined as the bickering over trivialities — was disallowed as too pejorative.

Now, the world’s greatest deliberative body has devolved into a palace of pettifoggery.

Nadler was in the penalty box. When a reporter asked a question of Nadler at a news conference Wednesday morning, Schiff interrupted: “I’m going to respond to the questions.” Later, on the floor, a contrite Nadler thanked senators for “your temperate listening and patience last night.”

Patience, however, was in short supply as Schiff and his team made their case. Ignoring the impeachment managers, and the silence requirement, Graham chatted with Sen. John Barrasso (Wyo.). Sen. John Boozman (Ark.) had a word with Sen. John Hoeven (N.D.), while Sen. David Perdue (Ga.) talked with Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.). And on, and on.

Reading from Federalist 65, Schiff quoted Alexander Hamilton: “Where else than in the Senate could have been found a tribunal sufficiently dignified” to conduct an impeachment trial with “the necessary impartiality”?

Clearly, Hamilton couldn’t have imagined this Senate. S.O.S.!

Watch constitutional law professor Jonathan Turley argue why the House of Representatives pursued the right impeachment articles but the wrong process. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Mandel Ngan / AFP/The Washington Post)

The Washington Post is now the only place you can read my columns online. Sign up for this special subscription offer to keep reading. And thank you!

Read more:

Read a letter in response to this piece: Senators are showing their true colors in the impeachment trial

Joe Scarborough: Mitch McConnell has failed the Republican Party

Henry Olsen: Adam Schiff portrayed the impeachment trial like a criminal trial. He should know better.

Jennifer Rubin: That is what blind loyalty to a cultlike leader looks like

Greg Sargent: This poll underscores the risk the GOP is taking on a sham trial

Jonathan Turley: The House made a huge mistake on impeachment by not seeking evidence in court