Trump impeachment trial takeaways: The silence spoke volumes

Sen. Durbin on the start of Trump’s Senate impeachment trial: “It’s is a solemn, serious moment. The Senate changes when we get into this constitutional responsibility.”

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In this image from video, President Pro Tempore of the Senate Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa., swears in Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts as the presiding officer for the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump in the Senate at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020.

Senate Television via AP

WASHINGTON — It’s 1:55 p.m. on Thursday, a few minutes before Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts is due in the Senate chamber to kick off the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump, and the first thing I noticed when I took a seat in the press gallery was the quiet.

Some of the silence, of course, was due to the historic, somber day. For the third time in the history of the U.S., a presidential impeachment trial was about to start.

The other reason for the hush was the decorum rules for the trial. Everyone — senators, press, visitors — was supposed to not be talking.

This is the second time on Thursday the senators assembled. Earlier, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the lead impeachment manager, was in the well of the Senate reading out loud the two articles of impeachment against Trump, for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.

I never thought in my career I would be covering a second presidential impeachment trial, but here I am.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., was in the Senate for President Bill Clinton’s 1999 impeachment trial.

When I get in the gallery, Durbin is already in his seat, which is in the front. As the No. 2 Democrat, Durbin sits in a center front row he shares with Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.

Durbin looks pensive, deep in thought. Others are milling about; he is not.

Over on the GOP side of the chamber, I spot Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., kneeling, talking to Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who everyone will be watching to see if she backs having witnesses testify. As Trump’s trial begins, we don’t know if there will be witnesses. Unless there is a brokered deal, it will take four GOP senators to join with Democrats to force witnesses to testify, and they can’t get to four without her. These weighty, crucial matters aside for the moment, with his pants hiked up, I see that Burr is not wearing any socks.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is presiding.

The senators’ names are being called out as the quorum call starts. I see two former 2020 Democratic presidential candidates — Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey — enter the chamber from the cloakroom with Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and they all seem chummy.

Another Democratic presidential hopeful, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, is in her seat, in a back row, quietly observing.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., arrives, in her wheelchair. Her seat is in a back row, next to another 2020 hopeful, Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado.

After their very public spat, I am on the lookout for 2020 rivals Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts to see if their paths cross. They don’t, far as I can tell.

It is very rare that all 100 senators are on the floor at the same time. (On Thursday, 99 were present.)

With the quorum established, I see in the back of the chamber the Senate pages are holding open the doors for Roberts, in a black robe, waiting to enter the chamber. He is escorted in — this place is full of rituals — by two Republicans, Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Roy Blunt of Missouri, and two Democrats, Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California and Pat Leahy of Vermont.

Grassley swears Roberts in and then the senators raised their right hands en mass and swear, and this is controversial since Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said his mind is made up — to administer “impartial justice.”

The senators, by alphabetical order, are called to sign what is called an “oath book,” another ritual formality. Staffers discretely wrangle the senators to be ready so this doesn’t take all day.

In a room of colorful personalities but bland dressers, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz. — the most fashion forward senator — stood out in her bright sizzling red caped dress with a plunging neckline and matching spike heels.

Later in the day, I talked to Senate Historian Betty Koed, who told me the oath book, after the trial, will be sent to the National Archives.

Afterward, I also spoke with Durbin in his office. Sitting on his desk was a book he read and recommends, “High Crimes and Misdemeanors — A History of Impeachment for the Age of Trump,” by Frank O. Bowman III.

I asked him why he was so pensive.

Said Durbin, “It’s is a solemn, serious moment. The Senate changes when we get into this constitutional responsibility. The presence of the chief justice just turns the place into a different room. You’re not in the same room where you do business every day. It’s a different place, different rules, different expectations. And it should be. I mean, there’s nothing more serious under the Constitution but to consider whether a president should be removed.”

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