Toughest Questions in Trump’s Trial to Be Considered in Secret

Laura Litvan and Steven T. Dennis
Toughest Questions in Trump’s Trial to Be Considered in Secret

(Bloomberg) -- The impeachment trial of President Donald Trump next week will transform the Senate into a packed but somber chamber where the most contentious matters will be hashed out behind closed doors.

Chief Justice John Roberts will preside over the entire trial where 100 senators will sit silently in their seats, separated from their iPhones -- a stark contrast to the usual lengthy speeches delivered by senators to a nearly empty chamber.

Here are some ways that the “world’s greatest deliberative body” will be transformed into a hushed courtroom:

Silence or suffer ‘pain of imprisonment’

Senators will be admonished at the start to “keep silent, on pain of imprisonment.” No talking or debate is allowed in the chamber during the trial. Theoretically, a senator could get thrown into the slammer for chatting up a neighbor or making an outburst during the proceedings. But it’s never been done before. Senators also are directed to stay in their seats throughout the proceedings -- no standing -- and have been told to restrict reading material at their desks to matters relevant to the trial.

Checking cell phones at the door

Senators, staff and the press are forbidden from carrying phones and other electronic devices into the chamber, though Democratic Senator Mark Warner of Virginia was seen stealing a glance at his Apple Watch. Large cubbyholes have been installed just outside the chamber and in the cloakrooms to store phones and other electronics.

Debating in secret sessions

Arguments by House prosecutors and the president’s lawyers will be televised, but the senators’ discussions on the most sensitive aspects of the trial will be in closed session. Under Senate rules, senators serving as jurors are supposed to listen, not publicly debate the trial’s rules or even Trump’s guilt or innocence. The proceedings will go into secret session when the arguing takes place, unless most senators agree to an effort by Minority Leader Chuck Schumer or other Democrats to keep things open.

Trial rules based on Clinton impeachment

Senate rules on impeachment trials date to 1986 and provide little structure. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will offer a resolution Tuesday to lay out the trial’s terms. He said it will largely follow the structure of President Bill Clinton’s 1999 impeachment, putting off the question of witnesses until after both sides present their case and answer senators’ questions, which will be submitted through the chief justice. McConnell said he will be able to pass the resolution with just Republican votes.

The first fight -- likely to take place out of public view -- will be over what amendments to trial procedures Schumer can offer, including his proposal to call White House acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and former National Security Advisor John Bolton as witnesses. Based on the Clinton trial, the public will only see the roll call votes on amendments and McConnell’s resolution on trial rules.

Rare Saturday work days for senators

While the Senate is usually in session just four days a week, the trial is expected to keep the chamber at work every afternoon for six days a week starting Tuesday. But mid-trial procedural issues may give the senators -- including four who are seeking the Democratic presidential nomination -- a chance to leave town.

News media in velvet-roped pens

The level of security goes far beyond the Senate’s normal operations, with more Capitol Police, restrictions on staff and public spectators, and other rules senators say are intended to limit disruptions.

The news media must get special passes limiting who can roam around the Capitol, and they’ll be almost entirely limited to talking with senators within velvet-roped pens, enforced by the Capitol Police. That will make it easier for senators to avoid being asked questions, although reporters can still catch senators boarding underground trains to their office buildings.

Casting a tie-breaking vote

With the Senate converted to an impeachment court, there are open questions about how Roberts will enforce the rules. One of the most important questions could be how to break a tie vote, especially on whether to call witnesses or seek documents withheld by Trump. This issue may be addressed in McConnell’s proposed ground rules.

All eyes will be on a handful of Republican senators to see if at least four will vote with Democrats on questions such as calling witnesses. Senator Susan Collins, who is seeking re-election in Maine this year, said she’s “likely” to support new witnesses after both sides’ presentations and senators’ questions. Senators Mitt Romney of Utah, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska have also indicated they would be open to hearing additional testimony.

“First we need to hear the case,” Alexander said. “That means hear the arguments, ask our questions and then be guaranteed a right to vote on whether we need more evidence. And that could be witnesses, it could be documents. I’ll reserve that decision until I hear the case and I ask questions.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Laura Litvan in Washington at llitvan@bloomberg.net;Steven T. Dennis in Washington at sdennis17@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Joe Sobczyk at jsobczyk@bloomberg.net, Anna Edgerton, Laurie Asséo

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