Congress

New press guidance for impeachment trial restricts movement

Holds freeze journalists in place before and after trial proceedings

A U.S. Capitol Police officer checks a reporter for electronic devices as he enters the Senate chamber to take his his seat in the press section on Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020. A magnetometer was set up in the Senate Press Gallery for the Senate impeachment trial. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Reporters covering the Senate impeachment trial of President Donald Trump were given guidance on how their access to senators during the proceedings will be drastically impeded.

The press galleries issued guidelines for the first time on Tuesday at 10:30 am, just hours before the Senate began considering a resolution setting the ground rules for trial rules.

Holds will be implemented on the first and second floors of the Senate side of the Capitol before the trial session starts and shortly after the trial proceedings end for the day. This process will be reprised for any breaks during the trial.

But there was confusion about the length of time the holds would be in effect, depending on which gallery was issuing guidance. Some reporters were told it was a 30-minute period of time before the trial began and after it ended that the holds would be in effect, while others were told those time frames were 15 minutes. 

“Reporters must remain in place inside press pens during the holds,” the guidance says. “The East Grand Staircase will be closed during the holds. Holds will be reinstated during breaks in the trial session.”

Sergeant at Arms Michael C. Stenger did not respond to an email request for comment. Eva Malecki, a Capitol Police spokesperson, did not respond to an email request for comment.

No food or drink is allowed in the press pens.

Under normal circumstances, it is commonplace for reporters to catch up with senators when they leave the floor to ask them questions. With these restrictions, reporters will have a hard time getting quotes from senators immediately after they leave the floor, unless the lawmaker seeks them out.

The pens that reporters will be tethered to are located at the Ohio Clock Corridor West Side, Ohio Clock Corridor East Side, Senate subway area, and the Russell Senate Office Building basement area. Why there is a press pen set up in the Russell basement area is unclear. As described by the Senate Sergeant At Arms, the Russell building is open to the public during the trial.

“The Senate office buildings are open to the public, and overlays are not required in the office buildings except for spaces near the Senate Subway,” the SAA’s email notes.

A limited number of tickets were issued for members of the press to cover the trial from inside the Senate chamber. Further, there is a magnetometer between the Senate Press Gallery and the Senate chamber, presenting another challenge for those working to cover the trial from the room where the debate is happening.

“Access to the Senate chamber will be subject to additional screening,” the guidance states. “No electronics will be permitted inside the Senate chamber.”

Electronics are not usually allowed inside the chamber, so that isn’t a departure from normal operations; however, the installation of a magnetometer and Capitol Police officers to screen members of the press as they go back and forth between the chamber and gallery to report and write their stories will present another hurdle for reporters across the board.

The process for obtaining press credentials to cover the Senate requires an application for full-time, paid correspondents of recognized news organizations. Journalists are granted a hard pass if their application is accepted.

Everyday reporters, press credential in-hand, go through a magnetometer, staffed with several Capitol Police officers, to gain entry into the Capitol.

The journey to the Senate Press Gallery includes at least two more checkpoints with officers usually checking ids. Now, those who have been vetted to access the press gallery will have to undergo an added layer of scrutiny to do their jobs.

A half-hour before any trial matter starts, journalists must have an impeachment trial overlay and a congressional press credential to get into the Capitol or the Senate subway. This is also required until 30 minutes after the conclusion of a session.

The Regional Reporters Association, which advocates for D.C. correspondents from newspapers across the U.S., said the reporters it represents worry that the restrictions will “hinder us from informing the public about their senators in one of the most consequential actions they will ever take.”

Jonathan Tamari of the Philadelphia Inquirer tweeted an excerpt from the group’s statement that the rules “serve no purpose but to hinder the public from learning about their public officials.” That argument has been echoed by the press galleries that represent credentialed reporters in the Capitol.

UNITED STATES - JANUARY 14: Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., attends a news conference following the Senate Democrats' policy lunch on Tuesday Jan. 14, 2020. (Photo by Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer D-N.Y., said he wants the press to have access to senators during the impeachment trial. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

During a press conference on Tuesday before the trial started, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said he was not involved in the decision to limit press access during the trial. The New York Democrat’s office in the Capitol is included as an area the press has limited access to.

“The Second Floor East Corridor from DL (Democratic Leader) Schumer’s office suite to the elevator near S-219 is restricted and closed to the press,” the SAA guidance notes.

Schumer said he would prefer the Senate's interactions with the press during the impeachment trial to be like a “normal day.”

“I want to see the press have as much access as possible,” Schumer said. “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."

Later on the Senate floor, Schumer echoed his opposition to increased press restrictions for the Senate impeachment trial. He said the restrictions could cause some journalists to miss key moments during the trial. Schumer said from the Senate floor that “some may not want what happens here to be public,” an apparent shot at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Sen. Martin Heinrich wrote to Stenger—the chief law enforcement officer of the Senate—that the restrictions imposed on the Capitol Hill press corps during the impeachment trial should be scaled back because they are “draconian” and “antithetical to a free press.”

The New Mexico Democrat wrote Tuesday to express his concern and discomfort about the limitations placed on reporters during the trial. He asked Stenger to change the restrictions to better balance access and security.

“To place limitations on the press is to place limitations on the American people’s ability to learn about the character and conduct of their elected leaders,” Heinrich said in the letter.

Sen. James Lankford, who spoke to CQ Roll Call during one of the impeachment trial breaks, said he doesn't have an issue with the press limitations.

“So I have not—of course I'm not on the other side of this—I have not had an issue,” the Oklahoma Republican said. “Our press folks have talked to lots of press. I talked to lots of press this morning. I've got meetings with press later on this afternoon. But just in the access points around the different hearing time, yeah, that’s a little different just because of the magnitude of the number of people that are here."

“Yeah, because I'm very open to the press,” Lankford added. “We’re meeting all morning, meeting all afternoon. But during the actual session—time like this—is a pretty scarce period of time.”

Niels Lesniewski and Patrick Kelley contributed to this report.

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