Senators have been told they have to leave cell phones and all other electronic devices outside the chamber when Donald Trump’s impeachment trial commences, according to “decorum guidelines” obtained by CNN.
The rules are officially intended to keep senators focused on the ongoing trial, though it would also limit their ability to directly engage in any social media commentary like rebuttals (or, say, theatrics). According to the guidelines, all cell phones and other electronic devices will have to be kept in the Senate cloakroom during proceedings—which will mostly involve ceremonial duties this week, but begin in stride on Jan. 21. That’s when all 100 senators, seven members of the House tasked with arguing the case against the president, and Trump’s defense team will meet with Chief Justice John Roberts presiding to determine whether he will be removed from office. In lieu of electronic communications, senators will be able to use pages to relay messages, according to the document.
“Paying attention is significant and important and I’m glad that we can put these devices down, I’m glad we will be sitting in our chairs, I’m glad that we are going to be focused on what’s in front of us at that time,” Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski told CNN. “I think it’s important, it’s beautifully old fashion, and I think we should stick to it.”
The House voted by 320-197/229-198 last month to charge Trump with two “high crimes and misdemeanors,” accusing him of withholding $400 million in military aid to Ukraine as part of a plot to coerce its government into launching a sham investigation against Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden. After a lengthy procedural dispute with GOP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi had the seven House members deliver the charges to the Senate, which will have the final vote on whether to remove Trump from office, on Wednesday.
Trump’s presidency is exceptionally likely to survive the trial—for Democrats to secure the 67 yes votes necessary to convict Trump, they would need at least 20 of the 53 Republicans in the Senate to flip. That is not going to happen, barring a miraculous change of fortune for Democrats. Trump polls just 42.2 percent public approval, according to a FiveThirtyEight average, but has consistently polled at around 90 percent support among Republicans. McConnell is expected to use his considerable power to set rules to sway the process in favor of Trump, including by attempting to bar witnesses from testimony, and Trump himself has indicated he will invoke executive privilege to prevent potentially damning testimony from former National Security Adviser John Bolton.
Trump will be given the opportunity to testify, but his defense team has urged him not to (for reasons that are beyond obvious, like his deranged behavior and the fact that he’s already admitted he pressured the Ukraine over Biden). It’s not clear whether the decorum rules would apply to him if he does make an appearance, or whether he would be allowed to tweet from his smartphone at the trial, as he’s done during witness testimony to the House Intelligence Committee.
Senators aren’t the only ones facing restrictions on their use of smart phones and other electronics during the proceedings. Republican Senate leadership and the Capitol Police have enacted strict rules on members of the congressional press corps, including by restricting their movements to prevent mingling with senators and installing magnetometers on the door to the press gallery where electronics are typically prohibited, according to Roll Call. That would force reporters to enter and leave one by one to send off updates, delaying coverage of the trial. A standing rules committee effort to allow cell phones and laptops into the gallery failed, Roll Call wrote.
Journalists have strongly protested the restrictions along with Democratic and some Republican senators, saying that they are intended to limit coverage of the trial. GOP Louisiana Senator John Kennedy told Politico, “It’s a huge mistake. U.S. senators are grown women and grown men. If they don’t want to make a comment, they know how to say ‘no comment.’ ...We aren’t children.”