Lack of official guidance on impeachment press restrictions causes confusion

Capitol Police are enforcing new press restrictions in the Capitol although there is a lack of clarity about just what they are. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Capitol Police are enforcing new press restrictions in the Capitol although there is a lack of clarity about just what they are. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted January 16, 2020 at 2:18pm

The absence of any written guidance regarding media restrictions and  conflicting information from Capitol Police and the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms staff have created an atmosphere of frustration and arbitrary enforcement as Senate action on impeachment began Thursday.

Some senators heading to their final legislative vote before impeachment proceedings began were armed with a notecard printed with a script of phrases to use to fend off members of the media, including “please move out of my way,” “please excuse me, I am trying to get to the Senate floor,” and “please excuse me, I need to get to a hearing/meeting.”

Senators are already experts in deciding when to chat with reporters and when to walk on by, because they do so every day the Senate is in session. They don’t need talking points to employ some of their favorite avoidance tactics, including fake phone calls and engaging in conversation with one another, which reporters rarely attempt to break up with questioning.

The cards, which bear the title “PHRASES TO USE WHEN SEEKING ASSISTANCE,” are similar to guidance issued to senators to help them navigate throngs of protestors that descended on Capitol Hill during the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Crowds of anti-Kavanaugh protesters were physically blocking senators from entering and exiting elevators and offices and resulted in daily media crackdowns — even though none of the protesters were credentialed media.

Justin Goodman, spokesperson for Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer,  made clear that the cards were not issued by Schumer’s office.

“TO BE CLEAR: I have never seen this and our office has not handed this out to Democratic Senators,” he tweeted in response to photos circulating among reporters about the cards.

Republican staffers pushed back against the idea that the cards were aimed at interactions with media.

“This represents longstanding best practices from @SenateSAA
& @CapitolPolice for safely de-escalating confrontations with *protesters* and it’s provided to Hill staff routinely,” tweeted Liz Johnson, communications director for Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah.

Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., was chatting with a reporter outside the Senate Republicans’ lunch when a Capitol Police officer approached and told them they had to stop talking. Jordain Carney, a reporter for The Hill newspaper, tweeted the scene.

No written guidance has been issued by the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms, which runs the press galleries and handles security in coordination with Capitol Police.

Getting the latest guidance is like a game of telephone as reporters pass along to their colleagues and competitors what they’ve heard most recently. A CQ Roll Call reporter was told that no liquids, including coffee or water bottles, were allowed on the second floor of the Senate. When asked about that rule, Capitol Police officers stationed there and in the basement could not confirm that restriction.

The heightened security posture on Capitol Hill includes special separate credentials to access the Senate, in addition to the traditional hard pass worn by staffers and press.

In the Senate basement, where the Senate subway deposits senators at the Capitol for votes, has long been a spot reporters gather to catch lawmakers on their way to the chamber. It was a hotbed of confusion even before any impeachment action began on Thursday.

At some points there were more Capitol Police officers than reporters or lawmakers on hand in the basement, and reporters were told conflicting information about where they could and could not talk to senators.

Guidance offered to reporters about restrictions for interacting with senators changed more than three times in under an hour. Reporters were told they could “walk and talk” in the basement but could not follow senators up the escalators or stairs, as they normally can. That was changed to include that if a senator consented to media sticking with them up the stairs, they could. Before long that was rescinded and the no-follow rule was back in its original form.

On the second floor of the Senate, where the chamber is, inconsistency frustrated reporters. Some reporters were not permitted to exit the press pen set up outside the chamber. Press gallery staff, employed by the Sergeant-at-Arms and tasked with facilitating press coverage of the chamber, fielded phone calls from those not allowed out of the pen, while some reporters were allowed to exit and question senators freely.