WASHINGTON — At the outset of the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump, the Senate was laid out as if it were ready for the most pressurized standardized test ever.
On each wooden desk sat a glass of water; in the top left corner were a sharpened yellow pencil and a fresh white legal pad. The near-empty chamber was still Tuesday morning, but it would soon host the third-ever trial of a U.S. president, filled with marathon arguments over whether Trump abused his office, obstructed Congress, and should be removed from office months ahead of the 2020 election.
Leaders of both parties, at odds over virtually every aspect of the trial and Trump’s conduct, agreed on one thing: The trial is a test, measuring Congress’ ability to handle one of the most contentious questions possible in a divided nation. They even used nearly identical language.
“The eyes are on the Senate. The country is watching to see if we can rise to the occasion,” said Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.).
“The eyes of the nation, the eyes of the Founding Fathers, are upon us,” said his Democratic counterpart, Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.). “History will be our final judge: will senators rise to the occasion?”
But in an exclusive chamber where senators are used to shouldering weighty issues through their own oratory, the 100 powerful men and women were left silent Tuesday, abiding by impeachment trial rules that required them, as jurors, to listen rather than speak.
Instead, the floor was turned over to outsiders. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. presided over arguments by Democratic House members and Trump attorneys.
In their seats, senators watched with mostly stern expressions, many leaning forward at their desks and scribbling notes. They weren’t even allowed to bring electronics into the chamber. A set of cubbies was placed outside the Senate’s ornate double doors, where lawmakers were expected to leave their phones. Some senators even passed notes to one another, as if they were back in a classroom.
As Democratic impeachment managers and White House attorneys made their cases, Sen. Cory Gardner (R., Colo.) wrote extensively with a ballpoint pen in a spiral notebook. Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) pressed the arms of his glasses to his lips. Sen. John Thune (R., S.D.) glanced occasionally at his smartwatch, which apparently slipped past the electronics ban.
Among the senators were four Democratic presidential contenders called back to Washington while their party’s primary campaign is headed into the final two weeks before the first votes, in Iowa. One of them, Sen. Bernie Sanders (Ind., Vt.), sat through opening statements slouched downward in his seat, his face leaning forward into his fist.
Sen. James Risch (R., Idaho) slumped sideways, his head leaning into his left palm.
At times, some lawmakers’ eyes drifted shut for more than just a moment.
In the front row, McConnell surveyed the scene with an inscrutable half-grin. Schumer’s expression changed with the speakers: He nodded and smiled as Democrats spoke, while his face slumped into his hands during Republican arguments.
Among those sitting in the public seats above were the actress Alyssa Milano, an outspoken liberal, and former Sen. Jeff Flake, a conservative Arizonan drummed out of the Republican Party for his criticism of Trump’s behavior. Now, Flake watched his colleagues grapple with the potential consequences of the president’s conduct.
For all the political and legal import heaped upon the trial, the opening day largely centered on procedural arguments about ground rules — which could significantly impact the amount of evidence presented and whether the public and lawmakers ever hear from key witnesses such as Trump’s former national security adviser, John Bolton — and not the heart of the charges against the president.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D., Calif.), the most prominent face of the Democratic impeachment effort, argued that the process will matter even more than the trial’s verdict as Democrats pressed to subpoena additional documents and testimony that have so far been blocked by the White House.
“Whether we have a fair trial will determine whether you have a basis to render a fair and impartial verdict,” Schiff said. “It is foundational.”
White House attorneys responded much like the president might: with arguments delivered with bombast, taunts of their rivals and some statements that weren’t true. It was a signal that while Trump may not be present at the trial itself, his approach to politics and survival will be.
White House Counsel Pat Cippollone mocked Democrats for arguing that their case is “overwhelming” while still seeking subpoenas to unearth additional documents and testimony from Bolton, among others.
“If I showed up in any court in this country and I said: ‘Judge, my case is overwhelming, but I’m not ready to go yet. I need more evidence before I can make my case,’ I would get thrown out in two seconds,” Cipollone argued. “And that’s exactly what should happen here.”
He also asserted, incorrectly, that House Republicans were barred from private depositions during the House investigation. In fact, GOP lawmakers on the investigative committees, like their Democratic counterparts, were invited and had the right to ask questions during those depositions.
The teams of lawyers sat at two sets of black tables, arranged in a curve to mirror the bend of the well of the Senate. Binders and stray papers sprawled across the Democratic side, as attorneys and lawmakers passed notes. Trump’s lawyers sat with thick black binders.
It took nearly three hours before senators got a chance to speak, in a vote to block a Democratic effort to issue new subpoenas. One by one they stood to say a single word each: “aye” (for every Republican) or “no” (for every Democrat).
That in itself was a rare sight in a chamber where votes are usually freewheeling affairs in which senators mingle, slapping each other on the shoulders and briefly signaling their decisions with a thumbs-up or -down.
The vote, like most expected in the trial, fell strictly along party lines, with 53 Republicans knocking back the efforts of the 47 Democrats.
For all the weight of the moment, the trial begins largely free of suspense.
It’s widely accepted that the Republican-controlled chamber won’t come close to the 67 votes required to remove Trump. Instead, the focus is likely to be on swaying public opinion, the most suspenseful question being whether a handful of vulnerable senators in either party break ranks on the rules questions, or on the final vote to acquit or convict the president.
Democrats from conservative states and Republicans from moderate ones all face risks in such high-stakes votes. For most senators, though, their votes appear to be locked in.
Before the trial began, there were signs of lawmakers hunkering down for a long day. Boxes of chocolates, including Rolos, Milky Ways, and Peanut Chews, were wheeled into the chamber, along with chips and sodas, courtesy of Toomey, who supplies the chamber’s official candy stash. (He also sent a package of Pennsylvania-made sweets to the office that houses the print media.)
On the floor, Roberts made the unusual trip from the Supreme Court building across the street.
As lawmakers milled about, Schiff and several Democratic attorneys approached Trump’s legal team, and they all exchanged greetings and handshakes.
“The Senate will convene as a court of impeachment,” Roberts called out shortly before 1:20 p.m.