The House’s impeachment inquiry has given new importance to what is a part of the culture at the Capitol — the media stakeout.
As lawmakers meet behind closed doors in a House Intelligence Committee hearing room, a handful of reporters are waiting just outside the restricted space, anxious for any information on what is being said. C-SPAN has started a regular feed on its website of this stakeout spot, located two floors down a spiral staircase in the underground Capitol Visitor Center.
Many of the images on cable news channels lately have been of reporters catching lawmakers in fleeting moments for comment, or even just a glimpse of an entering or exiting witness. But the relentless pace of the news cycle, with its ever-expanding scope of bombshells related to President Donald Trump, has placed new competitive pressure on journalists to break new details and gather reaction.
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“I would say that this is definitely one of the hardest assignments that I’ve had,” said Manu Raju, CNN’s senior congressional correspondent. “The stakes are so high in this story. If Trump gets impeached, this will only be the third time in history that this has happened.”
He added that it’s been an environment where “there is so much interest in what is happening, where every element is so critical, and every thing that a member says is important to the story.”
Nancy Cordes, chief congressional correspondent for CBS News, said that “it is an interesting challenge, and the developments are coming so fast and furious that we often find that by 5 PM, we are dramatically altering the piece right up until the moment” it goes on air for CBS Evening News.
That sudden change in direction is what happened on Thursday.
In the morning, the story from the Capitol looked to be the closed-door testimony of Gordon Sondland, the U.S. Ambassador to the European Union. Then Mick Mulvaney gave a press conference at the White House in which he seemingly admitted that there was a quid pro quo to U.S. aid to Ukraine, only to walk it back several hours later. “We had to make sure we got reaction from lawmakers to that pronouncement,” Cordes said.
From a logistical standpoint, a challenge for reporters has been that the House Intelligence hearing room — referred to as a “skiff,” or Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility — has multiple entrances and exits.
There is not only the stakeout in that below-ground space, but two floors up the spiral stairs to another bank of elevators where lawmakers come and go. Cordes said that it can feel “like a cat and mouse game just to catch a glimpse” of who is arriving or leaving, as she is often pressed to make a judgment call on whether to stay put at one spot or go to another.
Some details of the hearings have leaked, and some witnesses, like Sondland, have released their opening statements. But on the record and on camera, lawmakers are limited in what they can reveal. Witnesses have been unwilling to step before the microphone and say much of anything at all.
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