The first day of the impeachment trial was solemn, it was serious — and it felt at times like watching a grade-school fire drill.
The Senate is set up not only as a legislative chamber but a performance space as well. Long before radio and television, one form of entertainment would be to watch the orators of another age speak in sonorous tones in the chamber. On Thursday, the show was different. Instead, senators were performing a task less natural to them than orating: they had to line up in alphabetical order and follow instructions about when they could return to their seats.
Before that task began, they waited nervously for John Roberts, the Chief Justice of the United States, to enter the chamber. Kelly Loeffler, the newly appointed Republican senator from Georgia, sat as her colleague, David Perdue, showed her the features of her desk. Across the aisle, Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont audibly chastised Dianne Feinstein of California for taking her cell phone out of her purse. “You can’t use that,” exclaimed Leahy, cognizant of the special rules for an impeachment trial that banned senators from using any electronic devices or bringing reading material irrelevant to the trial on the floor.
Eventually, Roberts proceeded solemnly down the central aisle as everyone stood, many turning to see him as walked to the dais. Speaking afterwards at a press conference, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said he saw colleagues “visibly gulp” as the chief justice walked by. The chamber was absolutely silent. As much noise emanated from the busts of long deceased vice presidents circling the room as from the senators below as Roberts was sworn in and then proceeded to administer the oath to the 100 men and women who sit as both judge and jury in the trial. In the process, one line sounded odd. It can seem that almost every other sentence uttered in the Senate is a reference to a rule, a procedure or a calendar. But when Roberts spoke, the written authority referenced was none of these. It was to the United States Constitution. Article I, Section 3, Clause 6 to be exact. (“The Senate shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments,” and so on.)
After, a thunderous mass “I do” in response to their oath to sit in judgment, the senators had to sign an affirmation. They lined up in groups of four in alphabetical order. From Lamar Alexander of Tennessee to Todd Young of Indiana, they each came forward, to line up and sign. Staffers with clipboards roamed the floor, shepherding senators along. Some anticipated the line. Others didn’t.
Fresh off their much-analyzed spat, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren were both there, though they didn’t appear to interact at any point. During the signing of affirmations, the Vermonter trotted over to be ready long in advance of his name being called while Warren, last in her group of four, waited until almost the very last moment to add hers.
During the process, the room remained quiet. Occasional whispers rose up from the floor but the low hum of the Senate HVAC drowned out almost anything else.
When the last signature was inked, the sergeant-at-arms of the chamber read off the required language: “Hear ye, hear ye, hear ye. All persons are commanded to keep silent, on pain of imprisonment while the House of Representatives is exhibiting to the Senate of the United States articles of impeachment against Donald John Trump, President of the United States.”
The trial had begun. But the start of this new historical chapter, the Senate did one last normal thing. They decided to leave town until Tuesday. The trial could wait, but the three-day weekend could not.