Congress

View from the gallery: Hardly enough time to fidget

Rare Senate weekend session only lasts two hours

Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander arrives at the Capitol on Saturday for the continuation of the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

It’s a Saturday, but nearly all the senators were in their workday suits and ties. The Kentucky delegation was one exception, with both Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul wearing khakis and blazers.

This was the fifth straight day in the Senate chamber of the third presidential impeachment trial in U.S. history, and the 100 senators appeared for just two hours during a brief and rare weekend session when President Donald Trump’s team started its opening presentation.

A minute before the court of impeachment was scheduled to resume at 10 a.m., several Democratic senators were lingering in the Cloakroom, drinking coffee and eating breakfast. Michigan’s Gary Peters and Virginia’s Mark Warner walked into the chamber still chewing their last bites.

Republican senators also lingered in their Cloakroom, but none were spotted enjoying a late breakfast.

Few senators were at their desks at 10:01 a.m., when McConnell had to call for them to take their seats. One exception was North Carolina Republican Richard M. Burr, who was holding his fidget spinner and talking to a colleague. More than 20 desks were still empty when the clerk called “All rise” for the opening prayer and Pledge of Allegiance.

The public galleries were sparsely populated at the beginning of the session. Among those in the press gallery behind the presiding officer, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., there were good-natured murmurs among the journalists to make sure no one was leaning over the first row, lest a senator disapprove. 

Florida Republican Marco Rubio appeared immediately uncomfortable with the temperature of the chamber and grabbed a black folder and started fanning himself with it. He paused the fanning briefly to put a stack of documents in his desk, then resumed.

A few moments later, Rubio paused the fanning again, this time to grab a white handkerchief from his suit jacket and use it to wipe his brow. After putting the handkerchief back in his pocket, he grabbed the folder again to resume the fanning. Later he paused to take a giant sip of water.

About 35 minutes into the proceedings, cool air started blowing through the chamber. Rubio’s desk neighbor, West Virginia Republican Shelley Moore Capito, draped a shawl over her legs. On the Democratic side, Illinois’ Tammy Duckworth spent several minutes readjusting a small pink scarf over her shoulders and arms in an effort to get warm.

When White House counsel Pat Cipollone began the arguments, many Democratic senators were scribbling furiously on notepads.

New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand also flagged a page, who took a note out of the chamber. About 15 minutes later, another page brought her a bundle of colored pens, which she began to use to take notes.

But less than an hour into the arguments, many of the note takers had laid down their pens as White House deputy counsel Mike Purpura played video clips of witnesses giving the House Intelligence Committee statements supportive of the president, including a montage of former European Union Ambassador Gordon Sondland repeatedly saying it was only his speculation or presumption that Trump had sought a quid pro quo from Ukraine.

House Intelligence Chairman Adam B. Schiff showed little reaction as Purpura opened his arguments about flaws in the Democrats’ presentation by showing a statement Schiff made at the opening of a November committee hearing.

Schiff, seated to Purpura’s right and about six feet behind him, turned his head to look at a video screen on the Republican side of the chamber. He then looked for a few more minutes at Purpura as he condemned Schiff’s remarks, which the California Democrat has said were a parody of Trump’s conversation with the president of Ukraine. Schiff then returned his attention to the half-filled page on the notepad in front of him and resumed writing.

Democratic senators facing Schiff either looked at the monitor on their side of the room or at their notepads. None appeared to look at Schiff while the statement, which Trump and Republican allies have repeatedly condemned, was playing.

House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler of New York was not in his seat next to Schiff at the House managers’ table on the Senate floor when Cipollone said Schiff, by not testifying himself during the impeachment inquiry, had not shown respect to Nadler’s committee.

Several Republican senators tried to hold back laughter out when White House deputy counsel Patrick Philbin played a video montage of Schiff talking about wanting to hear from the intelligence community whistleblower.

The senators reacting with chuckles included John Barrasso of Wyoming, Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Kevin Cramer of North Dakota.

About 45 minutes into the presentation from Trump’s lawyers, Sen. Richard C. Shelby grabbed a page’s attention as she walked by. The Alabama Republican then grabbed his cellphone from the inner pocket of his suit jacket and handed it to her, instructing her to take it back to the Cloakroom.

Senators aren’t supposed to bring their cellphones on the floor; it’s unclear what made Shelby realize he still had his.

Five minutes later a staffer brought Cotton a sealed brown envelope. The Arkansas Republican tore it open, each finger swipe causing a rip to echo through the chamber before he pulled a manila folder from the envelope and placed it on his desk.

A minute later he opened it and removed a stapled packet of pages with a Senate seal on the cover page. As he flipped through the document, he tapped his fingers.

Earlier, a page brought Sen. Jack Reed four pens, which the Rhode Island Democrat grabbed with his left hand since his right was holding the one he was using. Reed then examined each pen before stashing them in his desk.

Reed didn’t seem to need the pens for taking notes on the presentation. Like he had been Friday night, he scribbled notes in the margins of a spiral-bound book containing small printed, centered text passages.

Perhaps it was legislative text, but from afar, the the passages looked like poems.

Herb Jackson, Jason Dick and Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.

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