The Solemn Absurdity of Trump’s Impeachment Trial

As senators embarked on their first day of proceedings, the occasional yawn and rubbing of the eyes emphasized the pointlessness of the whole affair.

Chuck Schumer speaks to reporters in a hallway of the Capitol Building before entering the Senate chamber for the impeachment trial.
Tom Brenner / Reuters

The impeachment trial of the century had barely begun when word came down that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had softened his initial plan to make the House managers and President Donald Trump’s lawyers present their cases in marathon 12-hour sessions over four days. He’ll allow the teams a more civilized eight hours over six days instead.

And a good thing, too—if the first afternoon’s deliberations were any sign. One hundred senators accustomed to talking at length were silenced by the trial rules, and by sundown they were visibly chafing, frustrated by the unbridgeable gap between the 18th-century gravity of the proceedings and the universal assumptions about its forgone conclusion.

At 3:45 p.m. EST, Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia, stifled a yawn. Two minutes later, as debate dragged on, he vigorously rubbed his eyes with both hands and yawned again. At 4:04, he shielded both eyes and held his head in his right hand. By 4:45, his eyes seemed to briefly close altogether.

“The eyes are on the Senate,” McConnell intoned during the opening period of “morning business” before the trial got formally under way in the early afternoon (only in the Senate does the morning hour come after noon). “The country is waiting to see if we can rise to the occasion.” Minutes later, Chuck Schumer of New York, the minority leader, echoed the sentiment. “My colleagues,” he intoned, “the eyes of the nation, the eyes of the Founding Fathers, the eyes of history are upon us. Will the Senate rise to the occasion?”

The eyes of the nation may well have been on the Senate today, but the eyes of the senators themselves were drooping. Chief Justice John Roberts took the rostrum shortly after 1:15 p.m., and barely half an hour into House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff’s enthusiastic opening salvo against McConnell’s proposed rules, Republicans were already shifting uncomfortably in their seats. Things went downhill from there.

Make no mistake: A frisson of real tension was in the air as the session got under way, as the Senate chaplain Barry Black, a retired Navy admiral, solemnly prayed, “Eternal God, you are our rock and fortress. Save us from dishonor.” All 100 senators atypically stayed put at their small wooden desks, silver containers of blotting sand placed on each one beside a row of sharpened pencils, in tribute to the days of quill pens and inkwells. Two brass spittoons sat under McConnell’s and Schumer’s desks in the same nostalgic tradition, and blue-suited pages silently refilled small water glasses on demand.

Reporters who filed into the press gallery directly above the Chief Justice’s head faced a stern warning from a sign on the door: “ALLOWED: pen, paper, you. NOT ALLOWED: almost everything else,” including phones, tablets, cameras, laptops, recorders, and “ALL ELECTRONICS.” This may be the second impeachment of the digital age, but no one would know that inside the room where it was happening.

The Senate chamber itself is an intimate and elegant space, and today it was full. There were special tables for the House managers and the presidents’ lawyers; a pack of aides ringed the room. Rotating relays of stenographers marched to the well of the chamber to record the official proceedings with waist-mounted stenotype keyboards that called to mind a ballpark peanut vendor or the cigarette girl in a vintage nightclub.

The actress-turned-activist Alyssa Milano sat in the visitors’ gallery opposite the Chief Justice, solemn in black against the yellow damask wallpaper adorned with Liberty Bells and laurel wreaths. In late afternoon, three of Trump’s most ardent defenders in the House—Louie Gohmert of Texas, Mark Meadows of North Carolina, and Lee Zeldin of New York—arrived to avail themselves of their privilege of the Senate floor, staring daggers from the rear of the chamber on the Republicans’ side.

But soon enough, boredom seemed to set in. Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who arrived in the chamber in a violet teddy-bear coat and bright yellow boots, took occasional notes in pink Hi-Liter, while her neighbors, Jacky Rosen of Nevada and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, passed notes back and forth. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii applied lipstick, while Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts perused a fat binder that appeared to contain biographies of the president’s lawyers.

If the debates were less than riveting, it was because both sides fundamentally agree that Trump withheld military aid to Ukraine while asking that country’s president for an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden. They disagree only on what, if anything, should be done about it, and they made no fresh arguments, and no one’s mind seemed apt to change. When Schiff made his plea for additional witnesses and documents in the face of the White House’s stonewalling of the House inquiry, Schumer listened with a bemused smile. McConnell just glowered. When White House Counsel Pat Cipollone spoke on behalf of the president, the leaders’ expressions were reversed.

The overriding truth is that in a trial in which McConnell needs only 51 of his side’s 53 Republican votes to prevail on procedure, the Democrats have limited power. Indeed, Schumer’s first proposed amendment—to subpoena a raft of documents from the White House—failed 47–53 along strict party lines. A second Schumer amendment to subpoena State Department documents succumbed to a similar fate just after 6:30 p.m. as Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado rose to his feet for a seventh-inning stretch.

But McConnell’s own caucus did manage to force his hand on the matter of marathon sessions after Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Rob Portman of Ohio objected to his departure from the more deliberate pace followed in the Clinton impeachment, 21 years ago this month. McConnell also agreed to automatically accept the evidence gathered by the House in its impeachment inquiry unless a senator objects, instead of subjecting it to a vote, as he had initially proposed.

Schiff insisted that McConnell’s plan to vote on calling potential witnesses only after both sides present their arguments and senators have a chance to submit written questions would be a perversion of any normal trial. “The opening arguments are the trial,” he insisted. “They’ll either be most of the trial or,” if no witnesses are called, “all of the trial.”

But Schiff may have unintentionally voiced a more profound truth when he quoted Alexander Hamilton’s observation that under the Constitution, “the Senate is given awful discretion in impeachment.” Indeed, it is, and by the end of day one, Mitch McConnell had shown that he is ready, willing, and able to exercise that discretion in the most commanding way.