(Bloomberg) -- Elizabeth Warren scratched out copious notes and Bernie Sanders watched intently as House impeachment managers began arguing their case against President Donald Trump.
But almost nobody could see what two of the leading Democratic presidential candidates or the other 98 members of the Senate were doing as the historic impeachment trial opened on Tuesday, with photographers barred and Senate-controlled TV cameras focused solely on the House impeachment managers and the president’s defense team.
A Senate chamber that is normally mostly empty except for during votes instead had all 100 senators forced to sit at their desks with a pile of impeachment documents and a pad of paper, pencils and cups of water, while a gallery packed with journalists and spectators looked on.
With their phones and other electronics stowed in the cloakroom, and ordered to stay silent under pain of imprisonment by the sergeant-at-arms, the senators paid rapt attention as the case got underway.
Still, it wasn’t long before they started whispering to their seat-mates or writing each other notes. Some struggled to stay awake as the hours passed with short breaks. As the night dragged on, many stood and walked around.
The unusually intense chamber was eerily quiet other than the sounds of pens scratching on paper, the shuffling of Senate pages bringing water to senators, or the rustle of members of the public quietly filing in an out of the chamber’s galleries. A lone courtroom sketch artist sat in the balcony drawing the scene after Chief Justice John Roberts opened the proceeding at 1:18 p.m.
Campaigns on Hold
All four of the senators running for the Democratic presidential nomination have to be off the campaign trail while the trial is going on, even though the Iowa caucuses are less than two weeks away.
Warren and Michael Bennet appeared to be intently reading through the House’s impeachment documents -- given to each senator in a large binder. At times, Warren and other Democratic senators flipped through pocket copies of the Constitution. Amy Klobuchar was also paying close attention and occasionally taking notes.
White House Counsel Pat Cipollone at one point offered a sort of false sympathy for them.
“Some of you are upset you should be in Iowa right now,” he said. “It’s long past time that we should start, so we can end this ridiculous charade and go have an election.”
That remark caused Klobuchar to fold her arms, while Sanders showed no outward emotion, continuing to lean back in his seat.
Klobuchar later told reporters that her family is in Iowa campaigning on her behalf, and “the people in these early states are going to understand that I have to do my job.”
She said wonders how her Republican Senate colleagues, especially the ones with whom she has worked closely, can oppose calls for the testimony of Trump’s closest aides with firsthand knowledge of the facts.
”I keep looking over at them thinking, come on now, you know we should at least hear from Mick Mulvaney, you know we should at least hear from John Bolton,” Klobuchar said. “You can’t have all these smoking gun emails out there and not get to the facts. And if the president believes that somehow this information is going to exonerate him, what is he afraid of?”
A number of Senate Republicans appeared glum or even irritated at times, resting their heads on their hands. Some seemed especially irritated during House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff’s opening excoriation of the president and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s resolution setting the rules for the trial.
Two Republicans were paying especially close attention: Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, who could be critical swing votes later in the trial on whether to call witnesses. Collins was taking diligent notes; Murkowski was staring intently almost throughout.
They voted with the rest of the GOP, however, to block a move by Democrats to subpoena documents withheld by Trump related to his order to hold up aid to Ukraine while he sought to have that country announce an investigation of Joe Biden, who is also seeking the Democratic nomination, and his son. Collins issued a statement saying she’s inclined to back witnesses later in the trial, but not now.
As they waited for the trial to get under way, senators milled around chatting. House attorneys shook hands with Cipollone and other lawyers defending Trump. Cipollone also shook hands in a friendly manner with Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and other Democrats.
There was an animated discussion before the proceedings among John Thune, the Republican whip, Collins and Murkowski.
After Roberts opened the trial, the room hushed. The glad-handing and smiles turned to serious and sober looks on both sides of the aisle.
As the debate over trial rules dragged into the night, some senators stood up to stretch and stand in the back of the chamber. Eight hours after the session began, House managers and Trump’s defense team were still discussing Schumer’s fourth amendment to McConnell’s resolution.
Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, said he wanted to keep pressing amendments because it might be the last opportunity to weigh in on the trial rules.
Among those visiting the Senate on Tuesday was former Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, a Republican who before his retirement from Congress had sharply criticized the president.
Flake said he was at the Capitol for other business and decided to watch because “it’s a momentous day.” He said he talked to some of his former colleagues but would not say what they told him.
“You can make a good argument on both sides whether this rises to the level where the president needs to be removed,” said Flake. “I’ve always said I would like to see the voters remove the president, not necessarily the Senate because you don’t want to get in a cycle of trying to disqualify each other.”
But Flake said “it pains me” to see what he says some House Republicans do, insisting “that the president did no wrong, this is somehow normal. It is not. It ought to be taken seriously.”
(Updates with Klobuchar quotes beginning in the 12th paragraph.)
--With assistance from Daniel Flatley.
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