A Challenge for the Trial: 100 Senators Who Love to Talk, Sitting in Silence
WASHINGTON — In the Senate, there are few things of more value to a lawmaker than the sound of his or her own voice.
Inside the gilded chamber, senators vocalize their votes — calling out “aye” or “nay” — make speeches on all manner of subjects — meaty policy addresses, weekly odes to exemplary constituents, even acknowledgments of wedding anniversaries — haggle over legislation, and generally sound off to their hearts’ content.
So President Trump’s impeachment trial poses a unique and particularly onerous challenge for the 100 senators of the 116th Congress: a daily vow of silence that will be in effect beginning at 1 p.m. and for the duration of the solemn proceedings, sometimes long into the night.
Senators will be confined to their desks, forced to stash their cellphones in cubbies and barred from speaking, even in hushed tones, as seven House impeachment managers and Mr. Trump’s defense team debate whether the president committed high crimes and misdemeanors.
“Every senator will have some trouble — we are not, by nature, silent,” said Senator Roy Blunt, Republican of Missouri and the chairman of the Senate Rules Committee. “The desire to hear the sound of your own voice will be frustrated by that rule.”
To remind them, sessions of the trial will begin each afternoon with the Senate sergeant-at-arms uttering a dramatic command that dates to 1868 and the nation’s first presidential impeachment trial: “All persons are commanded to keep silence, on pain of imprisonment.” (There is no record of a Senate forcing jail time on one of its own.)
It is a harsh reality for a typically talkative group. Matters of grave historical importance aside, they are unaccustomed to limitations on their ability to chat with colleagues, peruse the selections in the designated candy desk (carefully curated by Senator Patrick J. Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania), or, in the words of Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas, noisily “mill around like cattle” in the chamber’s well.
“Would that be a record for you, sitting in silence for that amount of time?” Mr. Roberts asked Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, as the pair — both veterans of President Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial in 1999 — rode together recently on the Senate subway.
“My staff would probably say it’d be a record for me,” Mr. Roberts added. (Mr. Wyden, for his part, said he remembered some breaks for conversations and the ability to convey messages to the chief justice overseeing the proceedings.)
“You couldn’t talk to each other; you knew that you didn’t drink a cup of coffee before you went in,” Mr. Roberts said. “It was tough. It was extremely interesting and pertinent, but it was tough.”
Asked about the limitations, Senator James Lankford, Republican of Oklahoma, joked that “all of us are taking bets on Lindsey Graham,” the garrulous South Carolina Republican who spent the Clinton trial as an impeachment manager, making the case that the president should be removed from office for lying about an affair with a White House intern.
“That’s the only one I really know of that I’m really worried about for six hours,” Mr. Lankford said of Mr. Graham.
Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, made the challenge still steeper on Monday when he released proposed rules for the trial that would effectively require each side to squeeze their opening arguments into two 12-hour days — a true marathon of silence for the senators who will hear the case.
Other veterans from Mr. Clinton’s impeachment trial recalled occasionally chafing under the verbal restrictions, even when they were able to take breaks to go to the bathroom or relax in the cloakroom, a private lounge just off the Senate floor.
Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, remembered subtly passing notes to a neighboring senator, Tim Hutchinson, then a freshman Republican from Arkansas, with occasional thoughts until, she said, she got too nervous about getting caught.
“It’s very natural for senators to want to comment on arguments that are being made,” Ms. Collins said in an interview. “And it’s very natural for us to want to have this ongoing commentary with our neighbors while we’re sitting there.”
“And that was before cellphones were prevalent,” she added. “This will be an unusually difficult challenge.”
The restrictions on device usage and talking are akin to the rules placed on a jury in a courtroom. If senators have questions and motions, they are to submit them in writing to Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who will preside over the trial. And when the Senate goes into closed session for debate, the chamber-controlled cameras will turn off — meaning there will be no public viewing of that.
On Thursday, as lawmakers prepared to take the 222-year-old oath of impartiality, there were some indications of the challenges ahead. Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, could be seen stealing a glimpse at her cellphone while other senators — including those in pursuit of the presidential nomination — could be seen greeting colleagues while waiting in line to sign an oath book.
There are advantages to the vow of silence, some senators said, arguing that the controlled environment would help them focus and allow them to better digest the nuances of the arguments being made by both the House prosecution and the White House defense.
“We have to listen,” said Senator Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington State and a veteran of the Clinton trial. “We have to hear the evidence, and that’s what we’ll do.”
And at least one of the less technologically dependent senators appeared to be mildly delighted at the opportunity for silence.
“I sit on a tractor for 18 hours a day and my cellphone doesn’t work — this is like heaven to me,” Senator Jon Tester, Democrat of Montana and a farmer, said, chuckling, in a recent interview. “I think it’s going to be really interesting, and not having a cellphone is like — that’s my dream job.”
“I hope this is a case that everybody takes this very, very, very seriously,” he added, his voice growing solemn. “The truth is, this is serious business.”
Source : Link