13 Ways of Looking At An Impeachment Trial

Because as a writer I work mostly at home; because I’m both a news junkie and a political junkie; because being female, double tasking comes second nature to me; because how often do we get to watch living history in which we have standing, a stake, and a part?; because of all this and more, I watched virtually every boring, exhilarating moment of the first week of Donald Trump’s Senate impeachment trial.

I know that others didn’t have that enviable privilege or didn’t choose that tiresome challenge, depending on how you view it. But I know that I also reorganized my closets and drawers, paid bills, watered and fed numerous plants, wrote these notes, made soup, organized a podcast, had three meetings, interviewed two people and was interviewed by a third, dealt with a bathroom-shower-small-flood disaster, and answered mail, all with one eye and ear glued to the TV. When I did have to go out, I earpod-plugged and streamed from CNN, because if I missed something the world would end and it would be my fault.

So here are some jottings from those days. I came to the weighty decision to jot instead of making popcorn, because popcorn would, given the situation, be disrespectful, frivolous, and get butter smears on my computer keyboard.

1. A stately ceremony is impressive. Nobody does ceremony like the Brits, of course, but still. The solemn walk of the House Managers, led by the House Clerk (a woman and an African American) carrying the Articles of Impeachment from the House of Representatives to the Senate, escorted by the Sergeant at Arms; the Hear Ye Hear Ye proclaiming their arrival. The next day, as the trial formally begins, the ritual welcoming of Chief Justice Roberts in his robes, his mounting the podium and grasping the gavel—there’s an almost palpable sense that the senators, probably for the first time, suddenly feel the gravity of a situation the majority has been instructed by Trump to dismiss as a hoax.

2. Striking, how really young John Roberts is, certainly for a chief justice. Barring unforeseen illness or events, he’s likely to be there a loooooong time. But lengthly service on the Supreme bench has been known to change and even reverse a justice’s political positions. He also knows that Supreme Courts get nick-named for their chiefs—the Warren Court, the Burger Court, the Rehnquist Court, etc.—and I doubt he wants to go down in history as having steered the Roberts Court to a reputation of brazenly partisan unfairness. (Re-reading that last sentence, I think it may be as prophetically stupid as the horror-movie phrase, “It’s only the wind.”)

3. Trump’s defense team is predictably almost all male and all white. It recently added Ken Starr of Clinton impeachment arch-conservative zealotry. And it added the ever hyperventilating Alan Dershowitz, Fox News regular who brushes aside all his critics by labeling them anti-Semitic, and who was part of the defense team in the trials of O.J. Simpson, Jeffrey Epstein, and Harvey Weinstein—making many women wonder where he’d been when Ted Bundy was actually found guilty. Comparing the teams makes me proud of the House Managers: a mix of sexes, ethnicities, old hands and newcomers, they look like America. Reportedly, they had less than a week to prepare after being named by Speaker Nancy Pelosi but wow, are they prepared. Caffeine-fueled staffers on the House Intelligence, Judiciary, and Oversight Committees, working with Pelosi’s office, have assembled a stunning barrage of charts, graphics, crisply cued-up videos, and arguments that are tight, precisely written, heavy on facts, and for the most part well delivered.

4. The House prosecutorial team is doing something surprising and strategically clever. While still pushing hard for procedure changes that will permit witnesses and testimony to be allowed at the trial, but knowing that Mitch McConnell will stand in the schoolhouse door like George Wallace before he lets that happen, they’re choosing not to address the rules in their opening remarks, as expected. Rather, they’re presenting detailed evidence they already have, right at the beginning, when the senators are most alert and the TV audience is at its largest. The defense team is visibly caught off balance by this. So smart I wonder if Pelosi thought it up.

5. The repetition is deadening. On the other hand, four former senators now doing commentary for different news broadcasts all note separately that this is probably the very first time many if not most sitting senators have heard any of the evidence, not having paid attention to what was being investigated by committees at the “lower house.” I, who’d been fixated on the hearings, too, am shocked by that insider tidbit. I had glumly assumed that would be true for much of the viewing public, but how depressing to think they’re joined by senators, who at least should read newspapers. It’s not as though it was a last-minute surprise that they’d be serving as jurors in this trial. Nevertheless, if drilling home these facts through repetition is teaching them now, I withdraw my complaint.

6. The hours grind on. The House Managers seem dauntless, although I have my favorites and my not-so favorites. Some are work-horses and not show-horses. One or two must have been chosen as an owed political favor. Others are both gifted and polished in oratory, in how to deliver impassioned feelings through well-reasoned points in a manner that mounts to a crescendo and stirs the blood. I’m thinking Adam Schiff.

7. House Manager Nadler, Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, is my congressman. Jerry is a really good, hard-working congressman—15 terms in the job, never one of the glamour boys. Short, overweight—though thinner now due to illness, so his suits hang on him awkwardly, touchingly. He is perpetually the weary looking, pogrom-fleeing, sad-eyed Jew: Tevye goes to Congress, having abandoned fiddling on the roof. But that demeanor hides a tactical brain in tension with a radical heart. Not a memorable or nuanced speaker, he gets caught up in righteous Old Testament rage at the Trump grotesqueries that brought us to this point. He shatters the fake Senate comity that’s been oiling the way so far. Stung, the other side spies talking points and immediately whines foul, so the Chief Justice intervenes to say Now Now Everyone. Jerry seethes. Joyce Miller, his wife of 24 years, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in December, and is in the hospital having undergone surgery and now enduring a severe chemo regimen to prevent further spread of the disease. Yet Jerry is at his post, a not always flattering portrait in courage. Others on his team—in the brief moment the cameras let us see—exchange glances about him. Maybe collegial concern. Or maybe they worry he’s “a problem.” Problem or not, there’s a shabby magnificence to Nadler that demands respect, and he certainly has mine.

8. Val Demings from Florida has a firecracker intellect and a killer smile. A former police chief, she’s the only African-American among the three women, and she carries enough smarts and energy to compensate for the lack thereof in the other two. Zoe Lofgren of California (I assume chosen for her experience in former impeachment trials), reads woodenly and whitely from her flat, staff-written remarks. Texan Sylvia Garcia, a Latina former judge new to Congress, also seems unfamiliar with her own speech, resulting in such unintended wit as the gaffe “Voldemort—Voldemir—Putin.” Hakeem Jeffreys of the House Democratic leadership team has a great future and a compelling delivery, but perhaps too much on one note, indignation. Youngish Congressional newbie Jason Crow of Colorado is a surprise: a former army Ranger and Bronze Star recipient, his presentation of the reality of war faced by Ukrainians dependent on the US but strong-armed by Trump is vivid and moving.

9. Then there’s Adam Schiff. Of short stature but projecting height, pale, with intense, penetrating eyes. Quick intelligence, skills as a former prosecutor, effortless familiarity with the Constitution and the Framers’ intent, oh yeah. Always takes care to call them the Founders or the Framers, not the Fathers. His ability to speak—extemporaneously, it seems—for two hours with only a glance now and then at his notes, and to speak in full paragraphs without Ums and Uhs: oh yeah. He alone among the mostly dunderheads on the Senate floor appears acutely aware that every word he says, that everyone involved says for that matter, will be studied for centuries. Yet it doesn’t make him pompous. His eloquence, his repertoire of different tones—fury, humor, conciliation, contempt, pity, irony, persuasion—and the grace with which he shifts between them, make me think he could be transported back to the 18th century to converse with the Framers and not blink an eye. Stunning. Might be getting gush-crush on Schiff.

10. Then the usual suspects. Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, glasses nose-perched, uncannily able to make the most dramatic moments yawnable; and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, self-named Grim Reaper of any progressive legislation the House has sent or might send the Senate. For me, there’s only one question regarding McConnell: Which does he care about most–defending Trump and thus getting to continue installing 30-year-old right-wing judges for lifetime appointments on the federal courts? Or relenting on witnesses to pacify voters, endangering Trump but keeping the Senate Republican majority in place, and staying leader? He knows that now 70 percent of the American public wants witnesses and documents in a longer, fair trial markedly different from what he planned. He knows that 70 percent of the American public never agree on anything, so 70 percent is one startling statistical hunk of pressure. Trump, who originally fantasized starring in a weeks-long circus trial, now wants the whole thing over yesterday, no witnesses, zip. Counter pressure. What will McConnell do? Whatever he thinks best for Mitch.

11. During the breaks, I think of how much work it took to bring this moment about. It’s breathtaking, all the way from us in the streets to staffers in the House. I think how easy it is to be cynical, to assume we are certain how it will end, with the Republicans letting their guy off no matter the cost to the world in the present and themselves in history: portraits in shame. Despair is even easier than cynicism. But I also know that there was a day when the Senate chamber held only white men. And then only men. And that’s not the case anymore.

12. It’s thrilling just to hear so many quotations from the Framers, those deeply flawed visionaries who believed this improbable experiment was worth a try, even though they knew they’d never live to see how it was turning out. Today is part of its turning out. The debate is as ferocious as it was between those who forged these institutions (though so far at least it lacks duels and deaths). How ironic that our acute national pain at the frozen-hearted moral sense Trump has inflicted on this Republic has also struck new flame from the flint of that original vision. But this time the experiment is embodied and articulated not by white Englishmen in powdered wigs but by an American black woman ex-police chief, now a member of the United States House of Representatives. Oh yeah.

13. Crush on Schiff. Definitely.