Even if you’ve been watching gavel-to-gavel television coverage of the Senate’s impeachment trial, there’s little you’ve been able to see beyond Chief Justice John Roberts and individuals talking at a lectern in front of a slab of busy marble.
There’s no sight of the senators on the floor.
This is unusual, as there are usually multiple cameras in the chamber during Senate proceedings. Normally, you’d see democracy in action, but not this time, when democracy is at stake.
This is the Republican strategy, which is clear every time Majority Leader Mitch McConnell fails to explain why he thinks you, the American public, should not be able to see your senators during this historical moment.
If you could watch the senators’ conduct during these hours upon hours of testimony, you could decide for yourself which senators are taking seriously their oath to conduct themselves as close-mouthed, open-minded jurists and which ones made up their minds before they walked through the chamber doors.
As an example of the latter, we need look no further than McConnell. Two weeks before Christmas, he made his intentions clear:
“We have no choice but to take it up, but we’ll be working through this process, hopefully in a fairly short period of time, in total coordination with White House counsel’s office and the people who are representing the president in the well of the Senate.”
I’ll give McConnell this: He’s never pretended to want a fair trial. That’s how sure he is that you don’t care about our democracy.
During this trial, journalists are also more restricted, severely so. Normally, they can walk alongside your elected senators or catch them for an interview as soon as they leave the chamber. Not now. They are corralled into roped off areas and regularly warned to confine their movements, much like prisoners out on a day pass to clean up trash on the highway.
As the wife of a U.S. senator, Democrat Sherrod Brown, I can sit in the family section of the senate gallery during the trial. I don’t have to stand in line with the general public, who is admitted a handful at a time but never to the point where all the seats are filled. I can also stay as long as I like, which has allowed me to watch as entire rows of Americans are summarily ordered to rise in unison and leave, even though many seats in the gallery remain empty.
I don’t blame the Capitol enforcers for this. They are some of the nicest public servants I know.
I was in the gallery for three hours last Thursday night, for another eight hours on Friday and for the morning session on Saturday. I couldn’t bring a pen and notebook, and, like everyone else, I had to surrender my cellphone and my smartwatch.
The printed back of the family pass lists behavioral rules, and sometimes we are verbally reminded of a few before we enter. No facial reactions are allowed. No hand gestures and no standing up except to leave. No leaning over the balcony edge to get a better view. No sleeping.
The testimony can be dry at times, but the view is fascinating.
Senators are supposed to remain on the floor when the trial is in session, also without phones or smartwatches. They are “commanded to keep silence, on pain of imprisonment.” Let’s just say that particular rule is not being enforced. You would know that if you were allowed to watch your senators during this trial, but you’re not.
Some moments are seared into my memory. For example, when House managers played a video clip of Trump boasting, “I am the chosen one,” South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham looked around and chuckled like a proud parent. You couldn’t have known that, of course, because you couldn’t see it.
This was not all that surprising for Graham. Like McConnell, he made clear his intentions before the trial began: “I am clearly made up my mind. I’m not trying to hide the fact that I have disdain for the accusations in the process.” A job is immediately easier when you decide not to do it.
From my perch of senate-gazing, it’s been interesting to watch how some members, most but not all of them Republicans, felt free to stroll off the floor when the House managers were presenting their case. Some of them made quite a show of ignoring the proceedings. One Republican senator sat for a while with an open Bible in his lap. As if that’s what Jesus would want him to do in this time of crisis.
That was my impression. I would love to know what you might have made of it, but you weren’t allowed to see that.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and professional in residence at Kent State University’s school of journalism. She is the author of two non-fiction books, including “…and His Lovely Wife,” which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate. Her novel, “The Daughters of Erietown,” will be published by Random House in Spring 2020. To find out more about Connie Schultz (firstname.lastname@example.org) and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.