Impeachment trial first: No public view of proceedings as COVID-19 and press access questions remain

To socially distance, senators have options besides their desks

Virginia National Guard troops walk down the Capitol steps after posing for a photo during a promotion ceremony in Washington on Friday. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Virginia National Guard troops walk down the Capitol steps after posing for a photo during a promotion ceremony in Washington on Friday. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted February 8, 2021 at 4:53pm

The second impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump kicks off Tuesday with no public access, as January’s violent insurrection and the COVID-19 pandemic keep Capitol Hill off limits to almost anyone who doesn’t work there.

The trial will take place behind a towering fence dotted with National Guard troops that was erected after pro-Trump rioters overran police and pillaged the Capitol on Jan. 6. The visitors’ gallery in the Senate chamber will be largely empty, unless senators abiding by social distancing requirements choose to sit there instead of rooms off the floor where proceedings will be shown.

This will mark the first modern impeachment trial closed to the public, who will be able to watch only from a video feed controlled by the Senate.

Onlookers packed the seats of the visitors’ gallery for Trump’s first trial, sometimes late into the evening. Sergeant-at-Arms doorkeepers rotated groups into and out of the chamber, with rarely a chair remaining empty. Tickets for President Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial were so sought after that a counterfeiting scheme targeting tourists was busted.

The Senate’s visitors’ gallery has been closed since March, when public tours were canceled and most guests were barred from the Capitol because of the pandemic.

The limit on visitors became even more stringent after the Jan. 6 insurrection. Congressional credentials are needed to get inside the 7-foot-tall fenced perimeter, inspected by the National Guard and Capitol Police.

Press access

The 2020 impeachment brought an unprecedented crackdown on the Capitol press corps after a contentious standoff between the Capitol’s chief security officials, then-Senate Rules and Administration Chairman Roy Blunt and the standing committees of correspondents.

Standing gallery committees are panels made up of journalists elected by their colleagues to help oversee press operations and to ensure press access to public officials and proceedings on Capitol Hill.

This year, a purge of top security officials on Capitol Hill after the Jan. 6 attacks and the Democratic control of the Senate brought new negotiators to the table. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar now chairs the Rules and Administration panel, which has jurisdiction over a wide range of administrative and operational functions on the Senate side of the Capitol. Jennifer A. Hemingway became the acting Senate sergeant-at-arms on Jan. 7 after Michael C. Stenger resigned.

After weeks of closed-door negotiations, decisions were finalized Friday on how many journalists will have access to which areas of the Capitol during the trial.

Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden talks with reporters as he makes his way to the Senate floor for a vote on Jan. 26. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

To view the proceedings, credentialed members of the media will show their congressional IDs to enter through a National Guard checkpoint at the fenced perimeter, before undergoing standard security screening to enter the Capitol, which includes an X-ray of any bags and passing through a magnetometer.

Another ID check occurs on the third floor, as journalists make their way into the press gallery workspaces.

Hemingway and Senate leaders have also invoked a controversial precedent set for the 2020 impeachment trial, erecting an additional magnetometer in the Senate Daily Press Gallery to specifically scan journalists. Reporters will be required to pass through and be cleared by Capitol Police operating the machine, a fourth layer of security, which many reporters maintain is excessive and disruptive.

Reporters and photographers will have greater freedom of movement within the Capitol than during the 2020 trial, when severe restrictions were put in place, including pens to corral reporters and limit their movement.

During the trial, a press pen will be set up on the second floor of the Senate, where lawmakers enter and exit the chamber. But unlike last year, reporters will not be confined to the pen, will be able to move with senators and will not require an escort to leave the pen.

In the course of a day on Capitol Hill, many senators stop and talk or walk and talk as reporters gather around to catch the latest comment. In the age of the coronavirus, reporters are self-policing and sharing audio recordings to prevent crowding lawmakers and each other.

Journalists’ time-honored practice of “strolling” with lawmakers — the walking, talking and relationship-building considered necessary by many resident reporters in the Capitol — was squelched during the last trial but will be preserved for this one.

One factor that may have contributed to the elimination of “holding periods” where reporters were stuck is that Senate President Pro Tempore Patrick J. Leahy will be presiding over the trial, instead of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. While Leahy is certainly a VIP and has a designated Capitol Police security detail, he himself moves freely around the Capitol daily without interruption.

Klobuchar was outspoken against the restrictions that were put in place last year, making time after a Democratic presidential debate in Iowa to call them “a big mistake” and to express her support for allowing reporters to use laptops in the chamber.

“Senator Klobuchar has worked with partners to ensure that the trial will be conducted in a manner that addresses both COVID-19 and the increased security presence within the Capitol complex. The Senator has also worked with members of the Capitol press corps to increase press access for the trial,” a Klobuchar spokesperson said in an email.

Senate rules have long prohibited the use of electronic devices in the chamber by members of the media and that will hold for the trial.

Pandemic protocols

Since Trump’s first impeachment trial in the early months of last year, the world has become embroiled in a deadly pandemic that has so far killed over 463,000 Americans and sickened over 27 million.

Even as tours were halted and congressional staffers worked from home, Capitol Police and lawmakers have fallen ill.

Senators were prioritized once vaccines were approved, and many senators and a select group of staffers have gotten them.

But many Senate aides, including clerks and parliamentarians, have not been vaccinated. They’ll be working in the chamber during the impeachment trial along with senators, House impeachment managers, counsel for Trump and other staff.

One way Senate leaders are looking to avoid crowding is by waiving the requirement that all senators be present at their desks while the trial is in session.

The plan is to reserve seats for senators who want to socially distance in the empty public gallery, or in the “marble room” just off the Senate floor, where the trial will be shown on TV, according to a Senate official familiar with the planning. Media will not be allowed in that area, though.

That means some senators won’t be at their desks during the trial, but they will need to be on the Senate floor to vote, the official said.

At Trump’s first impeachment, the decorum guidelines said, “Senators should plan to be in attendance at all times during the proceedings.”

It also required them to “silently rise at their desks and remain standing” when Roberts arrived and departed the chamber. But it did not explicitly say whether members had to remain at their desks throughout the trial.

Sen. Jon Tester said making sure staff was protected was paramount. “I would certainly do the level best to protect staff, for sure,” the Montana Democrat said.

Sen. John Cornyn said he believed the way the Senate has currently been operating is enough to make sure clerks and staff remain safe.

“We’ve learned how to operate safely,” the Texas Republican said, adding that guidelines on limiting staff could also be a way to protect unvaccinated staff during the trial.

Staff access during Trump’s first impeachment trial was limited significantly. And this time there won’t be Senate pages, as they have been sidelined since the pandemic’s onset.

During the first trial, extra tables crammed areas where senators usually mingle or cast votes, and chairs for Trump’s lawyers and the team of Democratic House impeachment managers filled the floor.

As senators sat in silence listening to testimony, they were seen yawning or taking sips of water and milk. Some got caught eating snacks and at least one senator, Vermont independent Bernie Sanders, was caught blowing his nose and placing the tissue on his desk.

These days, most senators wear masks as they move around the Capitol, generally taking them off only to eat, drink or speak at hearings or on the floor.

Kentucky Republican Rand Paul, a Duke medical school-educated ophthalmologist, has been a notable exception, refusing to wear a mask. He was called out by Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown on the Senate floor for his decision.

“I would like to ask Sen. Paul, in front of everybody, to start wearing a mask on the Senate floor like the entire staff does all the time,” Brown said Thursday during the chamber’s “vote-a-rama.” The marathon voting session on a Senate budget resolution was another close-quarters event that saw many senators remain in the chamber for hours at a time.

Paul did not respond to Brown’s comments.

Paul, one of the few senators who refuse to wear a mask, asserts that he is immune after testing positive for COVID-19 early in the pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that cases of reinfection have been reported, though they “remain rare​.”

And people who are not in danger of contracting the disease still could inhale the virus if exposed and then spread it to others if breathing without a mask, which is why the CDC is advising people who are vaccinated to continue to wear masks.

Paul is one of eight senators who have tested positive for COVID-19 to date, according to GovTrack. Two others have tested positive for antibodies.

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