UPDATE, 3:40 PM ET: The first full day of the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump is likely to be taken up by important procedural questions likely to trigger hours of acrimonious debate.
Shortly after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell released the text of proposed rules and parameters for the trial, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called it “nothing short of a national disgrace.”
Democrats are objecting to a number of proposals, including a plan to give each side 24 hours of time to lay out their case. But that would take place over two days for each side — meaning that the Senate (and viewers watching) are looking at 12-hour days that will spill over into the wee hours of the morning.
Schumer said that the resolution “stipulates that key facts be delivered in the wee hours of the night simply because he doesn’t want the American public to hear from them.”
The McConnell resolution does spell out a time to vote on whether to subpoena witnesses and documents, but that would come after opening arguments from each side and after 16 hours set aside for written questions from senators. Schumer said that the rules “don’t even allow the simple, basic step of admitting the House record into evidence at the trial.”
Schumer said that he plans to propose a series of amendments for witnesses and documents on Tuesday.
PREVIOUSLY: President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial is historic, with the promise of moments of drama, maybe even surprise. In the minds of the D.C. press corps and punditry, it’s also an event with a likely outcome.
The expectation is that Trump will be acquitted, what with 20 Republicans needed to join all Democrats and independents to remove the president from office.
The uncertainty is in how the trial will play out – a lingering question even at midday on Monday, less than 24 hours before it is scheduled to begin in earnest. When the Senate convenes at 1 p.m. ET on Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is expected to present a resolution that will set out procedures and put it up for a vote.
Nancy Cordes, CBS News’ congressional correspondent, says that one thing to keep in mind is that, given the rarity of impeachment hearings, to a certain extent lawmaker are “winging it.”
“We assume there is some hard and fast procedure guiding this trial,” she says. “But this is only the third time it has happened.”
Another unknown is what impact the trial will have on the 2020 presidential race – an event that makes this moment even more unusual.
“Some of us were here in 1999 for the Clinton impeachment trial, but we have never had an impeachment trial and an election at the same time,” says Sam Feist, CNN’s Washington bureau chief and senior vice president. “It certainly will make for a fascinating and unpredictable few weeks.”
As of now, all of the broadcast and cable networks plan to cover the proceedings, preempting regular programming for what is likely to be at least this week and next. While the cable news channels and network streaming services are planning gavel-to-gavel coverage, what’s undetermined is how long the broadcast networks will stay with the proceedings, particularly if they spill over into primetime.
Perhaps most telling will be in the reactions of the senators themselves, particularly if some kind of event changes the prevailing sentiment. During the proceedings the Senators are to be seen but not heard, leaving it up to the news media to catch them as they enter and exit. New restrictions already are being placed on where journalists can stand and interview lawmakers, many of whom will be in the spotlight in a way they never have before.
As Cordes notes, “Senators are highly aware that they are making a decision that will be examined for posterity, and that they are taking on a role that is bigger than themselves in some ways.”
What will happen: The first order of business will be setting out the order of business – as in a resolution for how the trial will proceed. That in and of itself could get contentious, as Democrats are seeking to call fact witnesses and obtain new documents. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has suggested that they would try to do that at the outset. He has four witnesses he would like to call, including former National Security Adviser John Bolton and acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, and he has not ruled out also calling Lev Parnas, the former associate of Rudy Giuliani.
But expect Republicans to push back at the idea of committing to witnesses at the outset Tuesday. Rather, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is likely to point to the Clinton impeachment, when that decision was made after each side has laid out its case.
Once a resolution on trial procedures is agreed to, each side will then lay out its case. Fox News’ Chad Pergram reported over the weekend that the rough plan is for 24 hours to be given to the House managers, led by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) to make their case, while the same amount of time would be given to the Trump team, led by White House Counsel Pat Cipollone and Trump’s private attorney Jay Sekulow. Pergram reported that current plans are to squeeze in these arguments through the rest of the week – meaning 12-hour days and stretching into Saturday.
The impeachment managers, Cordes says, will likely break up their arguments, but still go into “fairly granular detail about the evidence that they have gathered,” Cordes says.
Trump’s legal team is urging the Senate to quickly dismiss the impeachment charges – calling them a “constitutional travesty” – so there could be an effort to try to dispose of the case quickly.
What you will see: Yes, the trial will be televised, but not like a sporting event, the Oscars or even past joint sessions of Congress. That’s because the Senate, not independent news organizations, will control the cameras, limiting views to fixed positions in the chamber. If you are looking for tight reaction shots of certain senators as the trial is unfolding, don’t count on it.
The chamber itself will look different. As Pergram said on Fox News on Monday, “What they have done for the impeachment managers is they have reconfigured the Senate floor more from a legislative assembly to a courtroom setting.”
Networks have requested to bring their own cameras into the chamber, but so far it’s been a no-go. C-SPAN, which is not a government entity but funded by the cable industry, also has not received an answer to its request. In a letter to McConnell last month, C-SPAN’s Susan Swain wrote that it has been common practice to allow private cameras to cover such things as the State of the Union address, and “the historic nature of a Senate trial and the intense interest on the part of millions of Americans – and the world – argues for a similar approach in the Senate.”
As of now, it will be up to reporters, viewing from seats in the chamber above the central rostrum, to watch for reactions or other activities going on the Senate floor that the cameras do not capture. That vantage point also has its own set of restrictions – no cameras, no laptops, no cell phones, no electronic devices at all are allowed. And there are also plans to screen reporters with metal detectors as they come and go from the chamber to their gallery workspace.
Moreover, there could be moments when no cameras or media are allowed at all in the chamber. This is when the Senate would go into closed session, to debate some sort of procedure. That happened in the 1999 Clinton impeachment, when the Senate went into private time to discuss issues like whether witnesses would be called.
Off the Senate floor, there could be some friction as reporters try to chase down senators coming and going from the proceedings. Already, the Standing Committee of Correspondents, a group of reporters which oversees credentialing to the press galleries, has indicated its displeasure over proposed restrictions where reporters can gather outside the chamber, essentially penning them off behind a velvet rope so they won’t be able to chase down reluctant lawmakers.
The Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press and dozens of news organizations raised objections to the policy last week, writing in a letter to Senate leaders that “reporters must have the ability to respond quickly to rapid developments and need reasonable access to lawmakers who wish to speak to the press. The reported restrictions on the use of electronic devices and on the ability of reporters to question lawmakers as they move about the Capitol, as well as the additional security screening, will hinder reporting without an obvious benefit for Senate security.”
TV correspondents have been given a new stakeout spot on the first floor of the Senate side, giving them more of an historic backdrop to do their standups. It’s actually a closer and somewhat more scenic location than their normal spot, in the rotunda of the nearby Rayburn Senate Office Building.
“We are able to report live on the first floor outside the Foreign Relations Committee room,” Cordes says. “So during the duration of the trial, we can run up and down from the Senate chamber to my live location. On the other hand, reporters who can normally stand outside the doors of the chamber will be penned off in one or more locations. That will restrict our ability to choose the senators we want to talk to. We hope that those rules will get adjusted somewhat.”
How it will be covered: All of the major broadcast networks are planning special reports with their star anchors, and cable news networks will have even more extensive coverage starting early on Tuesday morning.
A big question is how long the major broadcast networks will stay with the proceedings. During the House impeachment hearings and the floor debate, the networks largely played it by ear, coming back and forth to coverage to try to time opportune moments. C-SPAN and Fox News Channel are among the network that plan gavel-to-gavel coverage, while other outlets are committing to at least providing uninterrupted coverage of the proceedings on their streaming platforms, like CBSN, ABC News Live and CNN Digital. CNN also is streaming online without the need to log in to a cable provider. PBS also will cover the proceedings, and plans to return to the proceedings after its nightly NewsHour broadcast going to the end of the day, which could come at 1 a.m.
CNN’s Feist says that while there are still some unknowns to how the trial will play out, they have gone back and looked at footage of the 1999 trial as a kind of blueprint for what may happen. When Chief Justice John Roberts was sworn in last week as presiding judge and then swore in the 100 senators, the proceedings played out “word for word” like it did 21 years ago, he says.
“In terms of that template it so far matches up,” Feist says. “That is the best we can do and work off of for now.”
What won’t happen: Senators, all 100 of them, are not allowed to talk, tweet or text. On Thursday, when they were sworn in, they were warned by the Senate sergeant at arms, “All persons are commanded to keep silent, on pain of imprisonment.” Harsh. The lawmakers, like others in the chamber, will have to check their cell phones and other electronic devices at the door.
Senators “don’t spend that much time typically on the Senate floor,” Cordes notes. “They come to vote, and they are allowed to chat away with fellow senators as the vote is going on. For them to be restricted from talking is not a normal situation.”
At a certain point in the trial, senators will likely get an opportunity to ask questions of each side, but if the 1999 trial is any guide, they likely will be written and read by Roberts.
What’s next: A key question is whether impeachment lasts a couple of weeks or much longer.
Even a trial that spills over into the first week of February will have a big impact. The Iowa caucuses are Feb. 3, and already the four senators who are running for president, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar and Michael Bennet, are being forced off the campaign trail.
“That is the heart of the challenge for us, because not only do we have to program for the trial, but we also have an election starting in Iowa,” Feist says. “We don’t know if the trial will be a week long or five weeks long.”
Next week, CNN has planned a series of Des Moines town halls tied to the Iowa caucuses, but they are making plans to feature Sanders, Warren and Klobuchar from their D.C. studio, and take questions from an Iowa audience, Feist says.
There’s also the possibility of an awkward moment on the night of Feb. 4, when Trump is scheduled to deliver the State of the Union address with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who signed the articles of impeachment, sitting right behind him.
It’s not unprecedented for an impeachment trial to take place as the president addresses a joint session of Congress: In 1999, Clinton delivered his State of the Union address as the trial was ongoing. Trump, though, is not Bill Clinton, and it’s hard to see him giving a speech with no mention of what is unfolding on the other side of the Capitol.
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