Congress

Impeachment trial security crackdown will limit Capitol press access

Press pens and ‘no walking and talking’ draw criticism from press corps advocates

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., talks with reporters in the Capitol after the Senate Policy luncheons on Tuesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The Senate sergeant-at-arms and Capitol Police are launching an unprecedented crackdown on the Capitol press corps for the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump, following a standoff between the Capitol’s chief security officials, Senate Rules Chairman Roy Blunt and the standing committees of correspondents.

Capitol Police Chief Steven A. Sund and Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Michael C. Stenger will enact a plan that intends to protect senators and the chamber, but it also suggests that credentialed reporters and photographers whom senators interact with on a daily basis are considered a threat.

Additional security screening and limited movement within the Capitol for reporters are two issues that are drawing criticism from Capitol Hill media. 

The Standing Committee of Correspondents, which represents journalists credentialed in the daily press galleries in the House and Senate, has come out forcefully against the planned restrictions that it says rejected every suggestion made by the correspondents “without an explanation of how the restrictions contribute to safety rather than simply limit coverage of the trial.”

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

“These potential restrictions fail to acknowledge what currently works on Capitol Hill, or the way the American public expects to be able to follow a vital news event about their government in the digital age,” the Standing Committee of Correspondents said in a letter Tuesday.

When the articles of impeachment are delivered to the Senate, a procession full of pomp and circumstance, just one video camera and no still photographers will be allowed to document the historic moment. No audio recording at all will be permitted, leaving radio reporters empty-handed.

Break with precedent

This restriction was not in place when the articles of impeachment against President Bill Clinton were delivered to the secretary of the Senate in 1998, a fact confirmed by CQ Roll Call file photos and coverage of the event.

12/19/98.IMPEACHMENT VOTE-- House Judiciary Chairman Henry Hyde, R-Ill., delivers the Articles of Impeachment against President Bill Clinton just passed on the House floor to Secretary of the Senate Gary Sisco. Looking on are committee members Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, Bob Barr, R-Ga., Bill McCollum, R-Fla., James Sensenbrenner Jr., R-Wis., Charles Canady, R-Fla..CONGRESSIONAL QUARTERLY PHOTO BY SCOTT J. FERRELL
House Judiciary Chairman Henry J. Hyde delivers the articles of impeachment against President Bill Clinton to Secretary of the Senate Gary Sisco on Dec. 19, 1998. (Scott J. Ferrell/CQ Roll Call file photo)

During the trial, a single press pen will be set up on the second floor of the Senate, where lawmakers enter and exit the chamber. Reporters will be confined to the pen, unable to move with senators. No movement will be allowed outside the corrals, and reporters and photographers will need to be escorted to and from 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. Others employ age-old avoidance tactics, including fake phone calls or staffers by their side firmly stating, “We’re late, she can’t talk,” or a similar excuse.

Journalists’ time-honored practice of “strolling” with lawmakers — the walking, talking and relationship-building considered necessary by many resident reporters in the Capitol — is one that the new security apparatus will squelch during the trial.

Credentialed members of the media, who go through security screening to enter the Capitol each day, will be screened a second time to enter the Senate chamber to watch the trial proceedings. Magnetometers will be set up in the Senate Daily Press Gallery, requiring reporters to enter the chamber one by one after being cleared by Capitol Police operating the machine.

This has the potential to cause delays and shape coverage of the impeachment trial itself. If reporters cannot enter and exit the chamber swiftly when news breaks or something important happens, it will likely become more convenient to simply watch the trial on television or the internet.

Even on a typical day, electronic devices are banned from the Senate chamber’s upper galleries where the press can watch proceedings. That results in a predictable pattern where phone-less reporters quietly hustle out of the chamber doors when a vote is gaveled closed or a major speech concludes, rushing to their phones and laptops to tweet and send the news to their editors.

Magnetometers will severely curb this breaking news practice, likely sending reporters to their laptops to watch the historic trial, rather than taking it in firsthand.

The standing committees advocated a temporary exemption from the long-standing rule on electronics, to allow laptops or cell phones, but the status quo will prevail.

“There is no additional safety or security brought by bringing such a device into reporter work space and gives the impression that it is being done mostly to protect Senators from the bright light of the public knowing what they are doing in one of the country’s most important moments,” the Standing Committee of Correspondents wrote in a letter Tuesday to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer

Blunt said that reporters will simply have to decide for themselves what works best for them under the prescribed rules. 

“You’ll have to decide where’s the best place to watch; it’s like watching a football game,” the Missouri Republican said. “Where’s the best place to watch it?”

Long discussions

The standing committees, press gallery staff, Capitol Police, sergeant-at-arms and Senate Rules Committee have been in negotiations for months about enhanced security for an eventual Senate trial. 

In recent weeks, Capitol Police personnel have come to the Senate Daily Press Gallery with tape measures in preparation for the installation of magnetometers and possibly removing reporter workspaces to make room for lines of reporters waiting to enter the chamber one by one, long before a final decision was made. 

Gallery staff worked to educate the Capitol Police staff about potential repercussions of magnetometers and limits on access to the chamber. The Capitol Police staff showed limited understanding of the day-to-day operation of the press gallery in the weeks leading up to the Senate trial, according to observations from CQ Roll Call reporters present for these interactions.

Senate press gallery staff are employed by the sergeant-at-arms and tasked with facilitating press coverage of the chamber. They will be forced into a tough situation during the trial, enforcing media restrictions that they advocated against over concerns about press freedom and logistical mishaps.

The planned restriction on the press will surpass those in place for the Clinton impeachment trial and even the highly charged confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, when hundreds of protesters led to daily media crackdowns — even though none of the protesters were credentialed media. 

James Ziglar, who served as Senate sergeant-at-arms during the Clinton impeachment trial, recalled security being a major issue for his team. Despite the more relaxed pre-9/11 security posture, the previous summer a gunman had entered the Capitol and shot two Capitol Police officers in an attempt to reach House leaders. That helped prompt more than two decades of security hardening at the Capitol, which looks to accelerate in the coming days. 

“People are like water, they flow everywhere. We had to double down on protecting offices and hallways that were not open to the public and that sort of thing,” Ziglar told CQ Roll Call in an interview this week.

At that time, the standing committees met with Ziglar for more than five hours to negotiate access issues and restrictions for the Senate trial, where the media brought concerns and complaints to work through with the sergeant-at-arms. 

The Clinton impeachment brought a flood of reporters flocking to cover the news, many unaware of the existing rules and patterns of decorum. Ziglar said the media were “rambunctious” during the trial. 

“There were people coming to the Hill with press credentials that had never been on the Hill,” he said.

During the Kavanaugh proceedings, Capitol Police determined that even credentialed Capitol Hill reporters should be kept from interacting with senators. A key thruway where reporters interact with lawmakers outside the Senate chamber and then-Majority Whip John Cornyn’s office were off-limits to press.

At the time, Capitol Police officers said the large media presence was causing a “life safety issue” for lawmakers, despite the hallway being closed to anyone besides lawmakers, staff and credentialed press — in other words, a dynamic that exists every day in the Capitol. 

Blunt didn’t go as far as to call the restrictions an attempt to avoid the situations that emerged during the Kavanaugh deliberations, but he said freedom of movement for lawmakers is a priority. 

“Allowing members to move in this important responsibility without having to fight their way on to an elevator or … on to the vehicles between the buildings.  I think that’s a legitimate concern,” he said.Todd Ruger contributed to this report. 

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone.