Donald Trump Impeachment Trial: Reporters In Chamber Scrutinize Senators For Signs Of Attention And Distraction

In this image from video, House impeachment manager Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., speaks during the second impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump in the Senate at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021. (Senate Television via AP)

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell sat at his desk, rarely if ever distracted from the case being laid out against Donald Trump by House impeachment managers this week.

That was certainly not the case with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who at one point tapped a pencil on his desk, and at another fidgeted his fingers. On Thursday, he left the chamber to go to the cloak room for blocks of time.

During the trial, the Senate cameras are fixed on the raised rostrum and whoever is speaking at that moment; the dozen or so reporters in the chamber, however, are fixated on the movements and reactions of the senators themselves.

Gathered in the third-floor gallery just above the rostrum, the members of the media covering the trial in person have a vantage point not captured by the cameras. The journalists are seated in the press gallery on the opposite end of the chamber from the cameras, so they don’t even have views of whoever is speaking, but that is not what many of the reporters are here for. Perched like hawks peering down on the Senate floor, they are watching for body language.

On Thursday afternoon, as impeachment managers’ presentations began to get a bit repetitive, Manu Raju, CNN’s chief congressional correspondent, wrote on Twitter, “Just popped into the chamber and in my time there I saw 15 empty GOP seats. (Didn’t see Lindsey Graham, Rand Paul. Also saw Jim Risch in the basement on his phone.) Thom Tillis was visible in the GOP cloakroom reading his phone. Bernie Sanders was slumped over.”

He added, “Sanders was not turning his head and watching the videos as other senators were turning their heads and clearly watching. It was impossible to confirm if Sanders was nodding off. Senators clearly are growing weary on the third day of trial.”

The situation is unusual for senators: Acting as jurors, they all must be present. As they are reminded at the start of each day, they are not allowed to talk “under pain of imprisonment.” That makes any kind of movement among the members stand out.

On Wednesday and Thursday, three Republican senators, Rob Portman of Ohio, Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, were frequently spotted taking notes on legal pads. At one point, Cassidy whispered something to the member next to him, Ted Cruz, and as Ali Zaslav of CNN noted, he apparently needed Cruz’s pencil to keep writing.

A couple rows below, Chuck Grassley of Iowa read through a thick ringed binder, only occasionally looking up. Josh Hawley of Missouri wasn’t even on the floor for most of the past two days: He sat alone above in the visitors gallery, nearly empty because of Covid-19 restrictions. On CNN, Chris Cuomo blasted Cruz for a tweet that went out on his account during the trial: “Orwellian: The words ‘breast milk’ are now forbidden. Because science.”

The moments of antsy weren’t just limited to Republicans. At one point, Ron Wyden of Oregon pulled the chair next to him back and forth. Other Democratic members stood up and stretched. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer shifted in his seat. He was still attentive, but slumped a bit, with his face resting against his right hand.

The trial is a bit of a marathon for members, accustomed to relatively short stints in the chamber to cast votes or deliver speeches (often with few others present). Still, the impeachment managers’ heavy reliance on video and audio clips helped draw members’ undivided attention, particularly on Wednesday, when most Senators were fixated on the graphic and intense footage of the rioters rampaging through the halls of the Capitol.

On Fox Business, Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming said that the clips were “disturbing, criminal, it was a riot, it was violent, we saw the police overwhelmed.” But Barrasso, like many other Republicans, still criticized the Democrats for impeaching a now former president.

What does this all say about the outcome? So many members seemed to be locked into their vote on the constitutionality of the trial itself. A 56-44 vote earlier this week on that question was an indicator that impeachment managers are far short of the 2/3 needed to convict Trump. Yet it’s not over yet: Conviction is still a longshot, but acquittal is not certain.

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