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Senators Quiet, Unplugged for Trial    01/19 08:46

   WASHINGTON (AP) -- No cellphones. No talking. No escape. 

   That's the reality during the Senate's impeachment trial of President Donald 
Trump, which will begin each day with a proclamation: "All persons are 
commanded to keep silence, on pain of imprisonment." After that, 100 senators 
will sit at their desks for hours on end to hear from House prosecutors, 
Trump's defense team and possibly a series of witnesses. 

   The first time the proclamation was used, in the 1868 trial of  President 
Andrew Johnson, lawmakers couldn't have imagined life in the modern era. The 
pace of today's politics would have been hard to foresee even in early 1999, at 
the start of the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton, when smartphones 
didn't exist. 

   And so the senators will have a throwback experience in 2020, disconnected 
from the outside world, asked only to listen. The normally chummy senators 
won't even be allowed to talk at length to people nearby or walk on certain 
areas of the Senate floor. Mostly they will sit, trapped in the chamber, 
focused on the issue at hand. 

   While senators might privately grumble about the restrictions --- and will 
likely violate them at times --- they agree that the rules are justified as 
they execute their most solemn duty: considering whether to remove the 
president of the United States from office.

   An impeachment trial "deserves our undivided attention," said Sen. Chris 
Coons, D-Del. 

   The ban on cellphones on the Senate floor isn't new, but enforcement has 
become more relaxed in recent years. Coons said that when he came to the Senate 
a decade ago, he would be reprimanded if he even took his phone out of his 
pocket. Today, senators are often spotted texting or looking at their phones 
while waiting to speak or vote --- and a ring tone has sounded more than once. 

   Republican Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa joked that if there weren't restrictions, 
senators would be "Googling stuff" and playing games on their phones. Or worse, 
live tweeting the trial. 

   "As much as I hate it, not being connected to a device, I just think we need 
to pay attention," Ernst said. 

   Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., said it's a "healthy situation," and he compared it 
to when his wife asks him to leave the phone at home when they go out to 
dinner. 

   "There will be some withdrawal symptoms," Cardin said. "We might have to 
take some tranquilizers." 

   Cardin spent the first hours of the trial on Thursday taking notes. As 
senators were sworn in as jurors and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, 
R-Ky., announced the next steps, Cardin jotted notes on the process and what 
was happening. He said the note-taking is "one of my work habits" that helps 
him keep his emotions in check, understand what's going on and also record 
history as it happens. 

   Other senators were still adjusting. Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of 
California stole a few moments on her cellphone before an aide motioned to her 
that it was time to escort Chief Justice John Roberts into the chamber.

   After the swearing-in, as their colleagues stepped forward one by one to 
sign an oath book, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is running for the 
Democratic presidential nomination, clapped his hands quietly as if he was 
ready to get moving. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., read through a stack of 
papers. Republican Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas peeked under the lid of his desk. 

   The ban on cellphones and any other materials unrelated to impeachment means 
that other Senate business will have to wait. Decorum rules circulated to 
Senate offices say that "reading materials should be confined to only those 
readings which pertain to the matter before the Senate." 

   "The rest of the world keeps going on," said Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla. 
"That's the challenge that all of us have, is that we're used to tracking 
international news and certainly news in our state, all the time, and now 
suddenly as things are moving along in our state, or around the world, we'll be 
a little slower to be able to get to it." 

   The challenge is particularly acute for the four senators running for the 
Democratic nomination for president who are competing in the Feb. 3 Iowa 
caucuses. While their rivals are busy crossing the state and appealing to 
voters, the senators in the race will be still in their chairs in Washington. 
And there won't be many made-for-TV moments in the trial; in most cases, 
senators aren't allowed to speak. 

   Sanders said Thursday that he's concerned about how it's affecting his 
campaign. 

   "I would rather be in Iowa today, there's a caucus there in two-and-a half 
weeks. I'd rather be in New Hampshire and in Nevada and so forth," Sanders 
said. "But I swore a constitutional oath as a United States senator to do my 
job and I'm here to do my job." 

   In addition to Sanders, Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Elizabeth Warren 
of Massachusetts and Michael Bennet of Colorado are running in the Democratic 
primary. 

   Senators won't be totally out of touch. If there's something they really 
need to know, staff can pass them notes through the Senate cloakrooms. 

   "It's going to be a new experience for a lot of my colleagues to not be able 
to talk and not be able to consult our email or text messages," said Sen. John 
Cornyn, R-Texas, who said that as a former judge he's used to sitting through 
long trials. 

   "But we'll live through it, it'll be all right. This is obviously a very 
serious and grave matter, so we should be paying attention." 


(KR)

 
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