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McConnell keeps press in check as impeachment trial starts

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is keeping his GOP colleagues largely buffered from reporters as they deliberate rules for the Senate impeachment trial.

Reporters are being kept in pens in the Ohio Clock corridor and the Reception Room immediately outside the Senate chamber, giving Republican senators a chance to leave the chamber and walk to meeting rooms or hideaway offices without speaking to reporters.

The Senate sergeant-at-arms, Michael Stenger, has also authorized a heavy police presence in the hallways around the Senate chamber, giving the proceedings the air of a crime scene.

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Stenger opened the trial Tuesday by proclaiming that all senators must remain silent during the proceedings or face the “pain of imprisonment,” a traditional pronouncement before such trials.  

Journalists needed a staff escort to walk about 15 yards between the two press holding areas in the Ohio Clock corridor and were crowded into a pen about 5 feet by 10 feet in the spacious Reception Room, which was otherwise mostly empty.

The net effect is that reporters have less ability to ask senators questions, including about the organizing resolution that will postpone the question of whether to subpoena additional witnesses and documents until later in the trial.

One of the most glaring measures is the placement of a magnetometer in the Senate’s Daily Press Gallery to make sure reporters aren’t trying to smuggle phones or digital recorders into the Senate chamber. Reporters and other visitors are screened for weapons whenever they enter the Capitol Complex.

“It’s like they put a Stargate in the gallery,” quipped one veteran reporter, referring to the movie by the same name about a portal that allows characters to travel instantaneously across the universe.

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Tuesday said the GOP leader did not consult with him about the media restrictions and he did not sign off on them. He urged that reporters be given regular access to senators while they debate and vote on procedures for the trial.

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“I want to see the press have as much access as possible. My view is it should be similar to on a normal day, but I was not asked about them and did not sign off on them,” Schumer told reporters when asked about the media restrictions.

A Senate source, however, said Schumer was given a heads up on the press restrictions and didn’t voice opposition.

“Everyone was made aware ahead of time as to what the plan would be,” said a person familiar with internal conversations.

Schumer slammed McConnell’s rules for considering witnesses and additional documents as “a national disgrace.”

“The McConnell resolution will result in a rushed trial with little evidence in the dark of night,” he said Tuesday before the trial’s start.

But some GOP senators have expressed frustration over media queries about how they might vote on evidence or witnesses or have gone out of their way — using circuitous routes in and around the Capitol — to avoid interviews on the politically charged trial.

Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), who faces a tough reelection this year, lashed out at a reporter for CNN last week when he asked her in a brief hallway interview whether she would vote to allow new evidence to be considered at the trial.

“You’re a liberal hack,” she said. “I’m not talking to you. You’re a liberal hack.”

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who is also up for reelection and is considered a possible swing vote, took a wrong turn last week and unexpectedly wound up in the Senate’s Daily Press Gallery, running smack into the people she might have preferred to avoid.

“I’m trying to find my secret pathway and I’ve really messed up. In the worst way,” she quipped when she walked into the press filing area.

Collins and Sen. Cory Gardner (Colo.), another vulnerable Republican up for reelection, on Tuesday ignored questions about McConnell’s organizing resolution called out to them from a penned press area.

Collins wound up playing a key role Tuesday by successfully pressing McConnell to amend his organizing resolution to allow the House impeachment managers to present their opening arguments over three days, avoiding the prospect of holding the trial until past midnight on Wednesday and Thursday.

Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), another potential wild card in the trial, often walks outside and enters the Capitol on the first floor to avoid passing through the gantlet of reporters who usually stake out the basement on the Senate side of the Capitol.

The restrictions have provoked a strong pushback from media outlets.

The Standing Committee of Correspondents, which represents reporters on Capitol Hill, sent a letter last week to McConnell and Schumer to “vigorously object” to the restrictions.

“These potential restrictions fail to acknowledge what currently works on Capitol Hill, or the way the American public expects to be able to follow a vital news event about their government in the digital age,” the committee wrote in a last-ditch effort to persuade McConnell to back off the restrictions.

The Executive Committee of Periodical Correspondents, which represents publications such as Politico, The Hill, The New Yorker and Time magazine, weighed in with its own letter later in the week.

“Any attempt to pen reporters away from lawmakers can only be viewed as a move to limit public scrutiny of chamber proceedings,” the committee wrote. “Any plan that blocks reporters from continuing conversations with senators is an unacceptable break from normal operations.”

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The restrictions have also drawn criticism from senators on both sides of the aisle.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), the top-ranking Democrat on the Rules and Administration Committee, which has oversight of the Senate sergeant-at-arms, told CBS News last week that she did not support the media restrictions and viewed them as a “big mistake.”

“I made it very clear, I talked to Sen. Blunt about this, I think we should have open access for the press,” she said, referring to conversations with Rules Committee Chairman Roy Blunt (R-Mo.).

Klobuchar on Tuesday mocked the heavy security restrictions as unnecessary.

“This talk of closed-door sessions and keeping things away from the press, the way they have all these crazy rules and pens … I just think that is outrageous and I’ve made that very clear,” she said.

Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) last week called the restrictions on reporters “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,’” he said.

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