No cellphones. No talking. No escape.
That’s the reality during the Senate’s impeachment trial of President Donald Trump, which will begin each day with a proclamation: “All persons are commanded to keep silence, on pain of imprisonment.” After that, 100 senators will sit at their desks for hours on end to hear from House prosecutors, President Trump’s defense team and possibly a series of witnesses.
The first time the proclamation was used, in the 1868 trial of President Andrew Johnson, lawmakers couldn’t have imagined life in the modern era. The pace of today’s politics would have been hard to foresee even in early 1999, at the start of the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton, when smartphones didn’t exist.
And so the senators will have a throwback experience in 2020, disconnected from the outside world, asked only to listen. The normally chummy senators won’t even be allowed to talk at length to people nearby or walk on certain areas of the Senate floor. Mostly they will sit, trapped in the chamber, focused on the issue at hand.
While senators might privately grumble about the restrictions — and will likely violate them at times — they agree that the rules are justified as they execute their most solemn duty: considering whether to remove the president of the United States from office.
An impeachment trial “deserves our undivided attention,” said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del.
The ban on cellphones on the Senate floor isn’t new, but enforcement has become more relaxed in recent years. Coons said that when he came to the Senate a decade ago, he would be reprimanded if he even took his phone out of his pocket. Today, senators are often spotted texting or looking at their phones while waiting to speak or vote — and a ring tone has sounded more than once.
Republican Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa joked that if there weren’t restrictions, senators would be “Googling stuff” and playing games on their phones. Or worse, live-tweeting the trial.
“As much as I hate it, not being connected to a device, I just think we need to pay attention,” Ernst said.
Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., said it’s a “healthy situation,” and he compared it to when his wife asks him to leave the phone at home when they go out to dinner.
“There will be some withdrawal symptoms,” Cardin said. “We might have to take some tranquilizers.”
Cardin spent the first hours of the trial on Thursday taking notes. As senators were sworn in as jurors and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., announced the next steps, Cardin jotted notes on the process and what was happening. He said the note-taking is “one of my work habits” that helps him keep his emotions in check, understand what’s going on and also record history as it happens.
Other senators were still adjusting. Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California stole a few moments on her cellphone before an aide motioned to her that it was time to escort Chief Justice John Roberts into the chamber.
After the swearing-in, as their colleagues stepped forward one by one to sign an oath book, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, clapped his hands quietly as if he was ready to get moving. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., read through a stack of papers. Republican Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas peeked under the lid of his desk.
The ban on cellphones and any other materials unrelated to impeachment means that other Senate business will have to wait. Decorum rules circulated to Senate offices say that “reading materials should be confined to only those readings which pertain to the matter before the Senate.”
“The rest of the world keeps going on,” said Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla. “That’s the challenge that all of us have, is that we’re used to tracking international news and certainly news in our state, all the time, and now, suddenly, as things are moving along in our state, or around the world, we’ll be a little slower to be able to get to it.”
The challenge is particularly acute for the four senators running for the Democratic nomination for president who are competing in the Feb. 3 Iowa caucuses. While their rivals are busy crossing the state and appealing to voters, the senators in the race will be still in their chairs in Washington. And there won’t be many made-for-TV moments in the trial; in most cases, senators aren’t allowed to speak.
Sanders said Thursday that he’s concerned about how it’s affecting his campaign.
“I would rather be in Iowa today, there’s a caucus there in two-and-a half weeks. I’d rather be in New Hampshire and in Nevada and so forth,” Sanders said. “But I swore a constitutional oath as a United States senator to do my job and I’m here to do my job.”
In addition to Sanders, Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Michael Bennet of Colorado are running in the Democratic primary.
Senators won’t be totally out of touch. If there’s something they really need to know, staff can pass them notes through the Senate cloakrooms.
“It’s going to be a new experience for a lot of my colleagues to not be able to talk and not be able to consult our email or text messages,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who said that as a former judge, he’s used to sitting through long trials.
“But we’ll live through it, it’ll be all right. This is obviously a very serious and grave matter, so we should be paying attention.”