View from the gallery: Senators swap notes and jockey for questions at Trump trial

Aides hold office hours in the back of the chamber while Senate pages log their steps for the day

Alan Dershowitz, left, an attorney for President Donald Trump, greets Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., in the Capitol before the continuation of the impeachment trial Wednesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Alan Dershowitz, left, an attorney for President Donald Trump, greets Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., in the Capitol before the continuation of the impeachment trial Wednesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted January 29, 2020 at 9:45pm

Mississippi Republican Roger Wicker approached a member of President Donald Trump’s legal team on the floor Wednesday and loudly asked: “You’re not packing up to leave, are you?”

Former Harvard University law professor Alan Dershowitz had gathered a small crowd of Republican senators around the desk of Mike Lee of Utah during the dinner break, and Wicker wanted to elbow in when the impeachment trial restarted.

“I’m going to try to get recognized and ask you…,” Wicker told Dershowitz before lowered his voice to discuss the topic. He then concluded: “I hope I get to ask it.”

On the eighth day in the chamber for the third presidential impeachment trial in U.S. history, the 100 senators strategized and huddled about how to ask questions of the Trump legal team and House managers, in their first chance to actively participate.

Senators were chattier than usual, especially during brief moments of silence between questions. But some also whispered to colleagues during answers.

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Illinois Democrat Tammy Duckworth turned to address fellow Democrats seated to her right, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, as Trump’s lawyers answered a question about quid pro quo.

Democratic staffers in the back of the chamber were effectively holding office hours during the session, dealing with a rotating case of Democratic senators seeking guidance on their questions.

Just after 4:45 p.m., West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin III headed to the staffers’ home base on a bench in the back corner, showing them papers and asking questions. One aide grabbed the attention of another for a consultation, both pointing at papers and gesturing.

Eventually, a third aide got involved in the Manchin inquiry, forming a huddle. Manchin eventually seemed satisfied with the guidance he received, laughing with the original staffer. He patted the aide on the knee with his question card and headed back to his desk, victorious.

Taking note

Notes were flying during the question and answer session, many going to Laura Dove, a staffer for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

Some notes were from lawmakers, others were from staffers in the chamber or the cloakroom. Some were improvised on torn half-sheets of paper with a written note on one side and printed information on the other.

As more pages arrived to deliver notes, Dove took a moment to close her eyes, seeming to brace herself for whatever new information or inquiry was headed her way and then smiled.

[Senators engage in ‘political ventriloquism’ during Trump trial questions]

Around 5:25 p.m., Kentucky Republican Rand Paul could be seen through the glass windows of the door of the cloakroom having an animated, if not heated, conversation with Dove.

Earlier, Paul could be heard on the floor seeking assurances that he would get to ask a question.

“I don’t want to have to stand up to try and fight for recognition,” Paul said loud enough for those in the galleries above the chamber to hear. “If I have to fight for recognition, I will.”

To begin the day, Utah Republican Mitt Romney entered the chamber and headed straight for the candy desk run by Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey, grabbing what appeared to be a small Hershey’s bar.

It’s possible Romney needed the sugar rush to quell the anticipation or nerves that came with knowing that a question he co-signed with Republicans Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska would be the first one asked.

During their question, the three took notes, glancing up at Trump’s defense lawyer Patrick Philbin. Romney also checked what looked to be an Apple Watch.

Texas Republican John Cornyn scrolled through some items on his Apple Watch while Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York asked the first Democratic question.

Back-row Republican chatterboxes Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Tim Scott of South Carolina laughed out loud when Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. read Schumer’s question.

Counting time

The White House defense team was using a cue card system to signal to their speakers when their time was running short, flashing small white cards with 2 minutes, 1 minute, 30 seconds and 10 seconds left.

The House impeachment team used a similar system last week, but did not seem to be using it Wednesday.

Just before time expired on the response from lead House impeachment manager Adam B. Schiff, Manchin twirled his pointer finger, seeming to signal “wrap it up.”

Roberts enforced the time limit on Schiff, and again later when House manager Rep. Sylvia R. Garcia of Texas went over her time.

At around 1:56 p.m., it appeared that Manchin was asleep. When he seemed to wake up, the hand that was holding his chin knocked his glasses off of his face.

After dinner, Manchin’s cell phone rang on the floor. He hurried to the cloakroom.

Romney looked like a statue as Schiff described a hypothetical scenario in which, during Romney’s 2012 presidential run, President Barack Obama had pressured Russia to investigate Romney and his family.

Upon hearing Schiff say Romney’s name, visitors in the Senate’s galleries shifted their focus to his desk, where he held a toothless smile.

Just before 3 p.m., two other unsuccessful GOP presidential candidates, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Ted Cruz of Texas, decamped to the GOP cloakroom.

Minutes later they emerged and offered a question that again invoked a hypothetical scenario in which Obama in 2012 sought a foreign country to investigate Romney.

This time Romney was standing by his desk, again motionless. Schiff called Graham and Cruz’s hypothetical a bit “off,” and Romney smiled.

Shortly before the Senate broke for dinner, Scott and Sasse nodded approval to Dershowitz’s argument against impeaching the president for an abuse of power charge.

As Dershowitz spoke, Scott took out a small bottle of hand sanitizer from his mahogany desk and glazed his hands, a move his neighbor, Sasse, replicated. Scott went on to silently clap as Dershowitz made his points.

Pages on the move

Thomas R. Carper addressed the justice to submit a question, and sat back down holding the card with his query on it. A page stood by waiting and it took the Delaware Democrat a few seconds before he realized he was still holding the card and handed it over.

Poor pages: At least four aisles, two on each side of the senate chamber, are blocked by the long tables for the House managers and Trump’s counsel. That forced Senate pages to speed walk the card from the senator, out to the back of the chamber and around, and down the center aisle to the chief justice.

With all eyes on them and silence falling over the chamber during their walk, the pages were subjected to something akin to a high-pressure Oscars walk, but with no award at the end.

At one point, Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, who sits in the front row of the Senate, posed a question.

The page had to take the U-shaped route from Grassley’s desk past a column of Republican desks, down the center aisle eventually splitting the respective counsels and delivering the paper to Roberts.

As both sides answered questions, Schiff sat right leg draped over his left, hands resting over his right knee, rubbing his thumbs together. Pages frequently delivered notes to the House lawyers seated across from Schiff. One delivery was a hefty stack of manila folders.

Some senators appeared to grow restless with the lengthy proceedings.

Carper rocked back in his chair. New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand walked to the back of the chamber with her notebook to lean against the rail for a while as she continued to take notes.

Cornyn rubbed lip balm from a nondescript white tube onto his lips, while fellow Republican Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming blew his nose into a white handkerchief.

For about half a minute, Bill Cassidy held his hand over his mouth, palm facing away from him so it looked like he was talking into his watch. But more likely the Louisiana Republican was concealing a yawn, as he followed it up with some eye rubs and a large yawn that he did not conceal as well.

Niels Lesniewski and Chris Marquette contributed to this report.