Our reporters break down the week in impeachment

By Kyle Cheney, Anita Kumar, Darren Samuelsohn and Melanie Zanona

This week lent a sense of history so tangible you could almost reach out and touch it.

Although it probably wouldn’t be long before, as a reporter in the Senate, you were ushered back into your holding pen to be kept at a long arm’s length from the proceedings and their participants.

So how did our team of reporters covering the impeachment of President Donald Trump fare amid such heavy media restrictions? What aspects of the trial were they most awed or surprised by as it all kicked off in earnest? And what are they most looking forward to next week?

Our fabulous four reporters tell all. Oh, and there’s a reader question also.

What was the one moment of the trial that struck you?

Darren Samuelsohn, White House reporter: Watching Adam Schiff’s closing arguments Friday night in person from the Senate chamber stand out as something I’ll remember for many years to come. It had been a long week and everyone looked drained, from the senators slouching in their chairs or pacing near the back of the chamber to the lawyers and reporters who’ve sacrificed sleep and diet to cover the proceedings. Putting any party politics and constitutional interpretations aside, it was a big moment for the country’s history as the Democratic impeachment manager wrapped up the reasons why Trump should be booted from office.

Kyle Cheney, Congress reporter: Schiff’s second to last speech was his most visceral — the one where he pointed out that standing alongside Vladimir Putin, Trump repeated a piece of Russian-backed propaganda: questioning whether Russia had really hacked a Democratic Party server. In that speech, Schiff issued his harshest assessment of Trump — that he’s a continuing danger and “imminent threat” to democracy. It’s the one that got the most senators sitting upright in their chairs, whether they liked what he was saying or not, and it was ostensibly the closing factual argument ahead of a loftier speech Friday evening.

Anita Kumar, White House reporter: Adam Schiff’s final impassioned plea for a fair trial as the House wrapped up its opening remarks Friday night. After days of arguments, opening statements and video clips, Schiff summed it up this way: “I implore you — give America a fair trial,” he said. “She’s worth it.” Whatever side you fall on in this case, it was a moment for the history books.

Melanie Zanona, Congress reporter: Besides Schiff’s emotional speech … I thought the Democrats’ use of video clips was particularly striking — and effective. As my colleagues Kyle and Andrew wrote, they replayed some of the most devastating clips in prime time, which shows they’re gearing the arguments toward the public as much as they are the senators. Even some Republicans sounded envious of the Democrats’ multimedia presentation. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) told me that Democrats have been presenting their case to the public like it’s “cable news” — but lamented that the defense team’s case, at least initially, presented more like “an 8th-grade book report.”

Were there any surprises?

Darren: There had certainly been all manner of media speculation coming into the trial about what to expect from Chief Justice John Roberts. I did one of them myself back in December. Still, his one moment in the trial Tuesday night reprimanding Democrats and the Trump lawyers to tone things down definitely deserved the attention it got. He helped lower the temperature at a moment when things looked like they were going haywire. Since then, it seems like everyone has been on better behavior, in so much as there have been no fisticuffs.

Kyle: Trump’s lawyers pulled their punches on day one of their arguments. They foreshadowed a bruising, explosive start and then largely kept an even tone and waded only gently into some of the areas that even Republicans aren’t all agreed upon, such as the handling of the Mueller investigation or the appropriate way of investigating the Bidens. They may be saving their firepower for Monday, or they may be trying to appeal to the senators who aren’t looking for a brawl.

Melanie: Given all the bitter, partisan brawling we’ve seen throughout the impeachment battle, I was shocked when several Republican senators actually put down their swords to praise Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) for his oratorical skills and presentation. It was especially striking when Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) — a top Trump ally and a manager during Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial — shook Schiff’s hand and told him he was a “good speaker” after the first day of opening arguments. As they say: Game recognizes game.

Anita: I know I’m going to sound naive when I say this, but the thing that surprised me was that senators of both parties continued to go on TV and give interviews about whether they thought Trump should be removed from office or acquitted. Don’t misunderstand me. I know they had mostly already made up their minds. We had heard what nearly every senator had to say before the trial began. (POLITICO has even had up this handy impeachment tracker on how senators might vote since December.) I just thought they would withhold those comments during the actual trial, so it would appear the trial wasn’t a foregone conclusion (even though it is).

Was there anything about Trump’s reaction that wasn’t predictable?

Darren: I haven’t had time to read through all the tweets, and there have been oh-so-many tweets. But from everything I’ve seen out of the Oval Office and his travels, it’s not too surprising that he’s been swinging away at the process and declaring his innocence. I guess more than anything, it’s indeed quite remarkable that he’d be stage managing this process with his commentary about how his lawyers had drawn the “Death Valley” time slot Saturday morning.

Kyle: If there’s anything surprising about Trump’s reaction, it’s that it has been fairly restrained. There have been some typical broadsides at Schiff and the Democrats, complaints about trial ratings on a Saturday, etc. But he appears to be heeding Republicans’ warning not to make his real-time commentary an issue midtrial.

Anita: I agree with Kyle on this one. We saw a record number of tweets — many of them retweets — and the typical insults against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and and lead House managers Adam Schiff and Jerry Nadler. But Trump still did other things — went to Davos, Switzerland, for the World Economic Forum, spoke at the March for Life and met with a group of mayors — and didn’t do anything that disrupted the trial. During a quick trip to Miami on Thursday, Trump gave a 90-minute speech at a Republican National Committee meeting but only a small part of it was about impeachment, according to a person familiar with his remarks. He mocked Democrats for what he dubbed “impeachment lite” and remarked that no one was watching the trial, but most of his remarks focused on the 2016 race and his accomplishments as president. Yes, he was more restrained than I thought he’d be.

What do the Senate’s media restrictions mean for your day-to-day work — and life?

Melanie: Some of our best news gathering — and source building — usually happens when we talk and walk freely with lawmakers throughout the Capitol grounds. Sometimes that means literally running after members who aren’t eager to talk to reporters. But we don’t have that ability during the trial. We’re being forced to stand in one area, meaning we can talk only to senators who are willing to come over and speak with the press. So we can’t do a critical component of our job: posing questions to senators, including — and especially — those who don’t want to be asked.

Darren: Yeah, it’s a pain in the butt. The Senate is hands down one of the most fun institutions to cover because of the access reporters have to individual members. So it’s not cool at all being rounded up into pens and blocked from walking with the senators. It makes an already tough job that much more challenging.

Kyle: The restrictions have made the news-gathering process a little more robotic than it might otherwise be. There’s limited value, for a reporter covering the factual arguments, to sitting in the chamber itself because you’re unable to document the trial as effectively as you can in a newsroom with a recorder and laptop. There’s incredible color to capture inside the Senate chamber, but for those covering the nuts and bolts of the trial, you might as well watch it on TV. That’s reinforced the importance of finding themes or undercurrents in the arguments that we can elevate for readers to get a deeper understanding of what’s going on.

Anita: I’m not there covering the trial day to day like my colleagues. But as a former Capitol Hill reporter, who knows what it usually is like, and now a White House reporter, who is restricted within the building to just a few areas with not many staffers, I understand what my colleagues are dealing with.

What are you most looking forward to seeing next week?

Darren: I’d say a final vote on the whole enchilada is the most anticipated moment — but it’s a giant “if” whether that indeed will come before next weekend. So as a backup, I’ll go with Ken Starr’s presentation — which we can say with greater certainty is likely to come as soon as Monday. Credit Trump for the drama that comes with adding to his impeachment defense team the last investigator to prompt a presidential impeachment. Democrats are already crying hypocrisy by noting that Starr is now taking a very different position on what constitutes an impeachable offense compared with where he was 20-plus years ago with Bill Clinton. It’ll be interesting to see how he squares that.

Kyle: I’m most excited about how the Senate resolves the quickly piling inbox of procedural fights that will tell us whether to expect a summary acquittal or a protracted trial featuring witnesses and documents. Most signs point to the former, but every day the trial remains open is another chance for new information or external forces to shift the politics. These questions won’t really be resolved by which side presents the most persuasive arguments but rather by the competing pressures facing lawmakers at home, from the White House and from the uncertainties of an election year impeachment.

Anita: We don’t know what the actual vote will be to acquit Trump, but we are nearly certain that he will be acquitted. That leaves the biggest drama over whether the Senate will want witnesses to testify — a vote that is likely to come next week. If the Senate calls witnesses, it will prolong the trial, leave open the possibility we will hear new evidence and even potentially alter the verdict (although there’s only an extremely small chance of that). I’m not a close Senate watcher, like some of my colleagues here, but even I’m interested in who votes for witnesses. Will all the Democrats stick together and vote for witnesses? What will Republicans Susan Collins of Maine, Mitt Romney of Utah, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — the three who are being targeted even by groups on the right — and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee do? Is there another Republican who will end up voting for witnesses?

Reader question: If the Democrats maintain their majority in the House and take back the Senate in the November elections, can the House impeach Trump again if he is reelected and have a better chance of having him removed from office with a majority in both houses?

Kyle: There’s almost no realistic scenario in which Democrats win the Senate but lose the 2020 presidential election: Are there really a lot of Trump voters who will pull the lever for a Democratic Senate candidate?

Melanie: That’s an interesting scenario. The threshold to convict in the Senate is still high — two-thirds — so it would still require Republicans to break ranks. But perhaps more GOP senators would be willing to remove Trump from office if they no longer have to worry about him being on the ticket in the future (especially if they blame him for losing the Senate). However, it’s pretty hard to imagine Democrats going down the impeachment road again, although Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said: Never underestimate Trump’s ability to “self-impeach.”

Anita: Can they do it? Yes. Will they do it? Very unlikely. First, there’s logistical hurdle: Democrats don’t just need a majority. They need two-thirds, or 67 senators. Even if Democrats take control of the Senate, the chance they would occupy 67 seats is slim to none. That means they would need some Republicans to join them and, as we can see from what the Republican senators are saying now, that would be a very difficult task. Then, there’s the political hurdle: Democrats don’t want to appear as if they’re just about impeachment. They want to appear as if they’re about getting bills passed and pushing for policies. Remember how reluctant House leaders were to launch an impeachment inquiry in 2019 even after allegations he obstructed justice during the Russia investigation, allegations he violated the Constitution by accepting U.S. and foreign government money at his resorts and allegations he made hush money payments to women he had affairs with? The bar would be even higher the second time around.