Observe Mitch McConnell from the balcony above the Senate gallery on a given night of President Trump’s impeachment trial, and it’s hard to tell whether the Republican majority leader from Kentucky is listening, reading, praying or deep asleep. The difference between those states approaches zero anyway, as the trial concludes its first week and heads into an interminable second.
“I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted, and I can only imagine how you feel,” lead impeachment manager Rep. Adam B. Schiff told the senators late Friday, effectively reading the room. His closing arguments for removing Trump from office were greeted with near-constant fidgeting, coughing, throat-clearing, dozing and open-mouthed yawns among the audience of 100, who had by then sat through nearly 40 hours of proceedings in four days.
Reporters in the upper galleries speculated on which lawmakers might be coming down with colds. The scribes had been forbidden from sleeping during the trial, and handwritten notes taped to their desks warned: “No leaning — AT ALL TIMES. Thanks!”
A small girl in the public viewing balcony flagrantly violated both rules as Schiff (D-Calif.) pressed on into the dark hours:
The president “solicited the interference of a foreign government in the 2020 election,” he said, and Sen. James E. Risch (R-Idaho) slumped sideways in his chair.
“He is the state!” Schiff cried, as Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) rocked back and forth.
“Are the blessings of freedom so meager we cannot endure the fatigue of a fair trial with documents and witnesses?” Schiff implored. In the front row, the limbs of Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) splayed out beyond the confines of his desk like a squashed spider.
Earlier in the week, several senators had been caught napping (McConnell was not among them, despite his mantis-like tranquility), and Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) handed out fidget spinners to his colleagues. Some suspect that Republican leaders designed the trial to be exhausting and boring — the better to acquit Trump of abuse of power and obstruction at its semiconscious end.
“We’re actually used to the long hours,” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) explained between sessions. “What we’re not used to is sitting in the chairs. I always suspected those chairs would not be particularly comfortable for the long term, and they’re not.”
Never has it been more apparent that the vaunted Senate chamber is functionally identical to your second-grade classroom: tiny desks, assigned seats, and occupants forbidden from talking during lectures under “pain of imprisonment.”
It’s even more grueling outside the chamber, in the labyrinthine hallways and tunnels of the Capitol complex, where aides, pages, cooks, laborers and a small army of police endure the trial’s long hours, many of them chairless.
Workers arrive in the frigid morning, hours before the Senate convenes for the day, and assume security positions beside the metal detectors. Crotches are wanded, purses are searched. On the fifth morning of the trial, a Capitol police officer guarding the main corridor said “How are you doing today?” to a passerby, then added to herself, “Oh, I’m sleepy!”
“The days are sort of running together,” said Tona Boyd, chief counsel for Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.). The office has been preparing for the trial since last year, and although the trial has not yet reached the phase where senators are allowed to ask questions, Boyd is subsisting on minimal sleep and her husband’s spaghetti during days that can stretch from 7: 45 a.m. until 2: 30 the next morning.
“I’d be afraid to take a nap; that just would not end,” she said. “We’re exhausted . . . [but] even though these are really hard and long days, you feel like you’re a part of history, and that sustains us.”
It sustains some. “I am one pooped puppy,” Murkowski told The Washington Post’s Paul Kane as she left the Capitol late Thursday, declaring her intention to take a bath and drink a glass of wine before returning.
As one of the few Republican senators who might conceivably vote to convict Trump, Murkowski has been unable to traverse the building without a dust cloud of reporters and microphones accompanying her every step. As this fused organism entered the Capitol on the first day of the Trump defense team’s statements on Saturday — yes, Saturday; there is no escape — a reporter at the edge of Murkowski’s tornado spilled her coffee. Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) sprang forth with a wad of napkins and helped mop it up before Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) ambled past, carrying his own mug of caffeine with a paw print on the side.
Probably no one will be crying for the tired senators, who get to come and go when they want and do as they please for the vast majority of American history — save these rare moments. The first presidential impeachment trial lasted more than two months. The second, Bill Clinton’s, went for five weeks. McConnell is trying to wrap up Trump’s in less than two weeks, but even one was enough to turn one of the world’s most esteemed legislative institutions into a sleepover camp of clumsy, cranky, anxious, dozy captives of history and the Constitution.
Some senators filed through the Capitol basement at the end of Saturday’s proceedings, boarding congressional subway cars that whisked them toward their offices and whatever passed for a weekend.
Asked what he planned to do with his day off on Sunday, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) appeared momentarily confused. “I’m going back to Connecticut,” he said. “I have plans, but . . .”
The train door closed in his face and he vanished down the tunnel. The trial resumes Monday, the only plan that matters.