Another First for an Impeachment Trial: Meeting During a Pandemic

WASHINGTON — During the last impeachment trial of President Donald J. Trump, as reporters prowled the Senate hallways awaiting word on whether a key Republican might vote to allow witnesses to be heard, senators were behind closed doors receiving a disturbing briefing about a new virus spreading through China.

When the senator, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, emerged on that January morning in 2020, he batted away questions about the trial and instead focused on the coronavirus, then a far-off illness that had no bearing on the proceedings.

Little more than a year later, the pandemic is a dominant factor setting the parameters for Mr. Trump’s second impeachment trial, forcing the proceedings to be closed to the public for the first time in modern history and dictating the requirements for hours spent in deliberation and judgment.

Senate officials have scrambled to adapt the decades-old traditions of impeachment trials to the demands of a disease that is still raging in Washington and around the country, adding social distancing and hygienic precautions that have shaped the process.

The proceedings have been limited to the 100 senators — most, if not all, now vaccinated against the virus — and a bare-bones carousel of floor staff and reporters, all masked and spaced six feet apart. The restrictions have added to the intimacy of a painfully personal and graphic video documentation of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol shown by the House impeachment managers, which formed the heart of their case against Mr. Trump on the charge of incitement of insurrection.

Because of limitations on attendance that have been in place since the pandemic took hold last year, the restrictions this week meant that most of the people present for the trial had also been in the Capitol when the pro-Trump mob stormed the joint session of Congress. As the prosecutors played the video at trial, the sounds of the rioters were more deafening in a marbled chamber that was at half its capacity.

For three new senators — Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock of Georgia, and Alex Padilla of California — it was also an unusual introduction to the Senate, where crucial partnerships and relationships are forged in part through the camaraderie and congeniality of floor chatter.

“The very first time I was sitting at my desk as a United States senator, the House managers were walking in with the article of impeachment,” Mr. Warnock said this week. “It’s not something one expects to be doing.”

There were no Senate pages zipping across the chamber, delivering fresh glasses of water and milk to desks. The visitor galleries were almost bare, except for an occasional House lawmaker and a few law enforcement officers. And on the new desks for the legal teams — designed for pandemic restrictions and easy egress — there were bottles of hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes.

Outside the chamber, Capitol employees not only brought back velvet stanchions to keep journalists cordoned off from senators, but also carefully spaced out clear dots imprinted with footprints to offer a visual guide for distancing.

While more than 100 journalists had been credentialed in 2020, there are fewer than half that number this time, to ensure that social distancing could be maintained. A year ago, videos of reporters shuffling like waddles of penguins through the Senate basement after undecided senators went viral — and have since been shared again as a glaring reminder of how standards for personal proximity have changed during the pandemic.

Even with most lawmakers and some staff advisers now inoculated to ensure the continuity of government, the nine impeachment managers and their aides deliberated over how to ensure the proceedings did not become a superspreader event among those still awaiting a vaccination.

Congressional leaders made an effort to make sure that everyone who would be on the floor for the trial, including staff members, had an opportunity to be vaccinated before it began, according to people familiar with the planning. At one point, the impeachment managers discussed asking to hold the trial in a space larger than the Senate chamber, like the Capitol Visitor Center auditorium or even the Kennedy Center, to allow the participants to space themselves farther apart.

Ultimately, House managers sharply reduced the number of aides physically on campus during the trial and tightly policed who could come in and out of the rooms off the Senate floor set aside for the managers and key trial staff, according to a Democratic official involved in the planning.

Senators, typically required by trial rules to remain seated at their desks for the duration of each day’s arguments and presentations, were allowed to watch from a room just off the Senate floor or from the visitors gallery above. A pair of larger television screens were also installed in the balcony, to supplement screens on the Senate floor for lawmakers and reporters in the gallery.

Senator Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri, was one of the few lawmakers who took advantage of the bird’s-eye view seating, later telling reporters he “had a little bit better view” compared with his seat in the corner of the Senate chamber.

“Here you can sit head-on — I can also space out a little bit more,” said Mr. Hawley, who perused trial briefs from his perch. “And it’s just not quite as crowded.”

Asked about the effect of the pandemic, Senator Martin Heinrich, Democrat of New Mexico, observed, “We’ve all sort of gotten used to working in a very different environment so it was — I really hadn’t even connected the two.”

Because of limitations on attendance that have been in place since the pandemic took hold last year, the restrictions this week meant that most of the people present for the trial had also been in the Capitol when the pro-Trump mob stormed the joint session of Congress. As the prosecutors played the video at trial, the sounds of the rioters were more deafening in a marbled chamber that was at half its capacity.

For three new senators — Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock of Georgia, and Alex Padilla of California — it was also an unusual introduction to the Senate, where crucial partnerships and relationships are forged in part through the camaraderie and congeniality of floor chatter.

“The very first time I was sitting at my desk as a United States senator, the House managers were walking in with the article of impeachment,” Mr. Warnock said this week. “It’s not something one expects to be doing.”

There were no Senate pages zipping across the chamber, delivering fresh glasses of water and milk to desks. The visitor galleries were almost bare, except for an occasional House lawmaker and a few law enforcement officers. And on the new desks for the legal teams — designed for pandemic restrictions and easy egress — there were bottles of hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes.

Senators, typically required by trial rules to remain seated at their desks for the duration of each day’s arguments and presentations, were allowed to watch from a room just off the Senate floor or from the visitors gallery above. A pair of larger television screens were also installed in the balcony, to supplement screens on the Senate floor for lawmakers and reporters in the gallery.

Senator Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri, was one of the few lawmakers who took advantage of the bird’s-eye view seating, later telling reporters he “had a little bit better view” compared with his seat in the corner of the Senate chamber.

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