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View from the gallery: Impeachment trial end in sight, senators fight common cold

Outside the chamber and in galleries, much talk of the “Senate plague”

Artists Art Lien, left, and William J. Hennessy Jr. sketch scenes from the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump in the Capitol on Thursday. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Artists Art Lien, left, and William J. Hennessy Jr. sketch scenes from the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump in the Capitol on Thursday. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell stood up to send a question to President Donald Trump’s defense team around 6:45 p.m. Thursday, but first he suggested an upcoming 45-minute break for dinner.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., instead of his usual response of “without objection,” changed it to a phrase that resonated with the haggard senators and others in the chamber. “I’m sure there’s no objection,” Roberts said, causing a murmur of laughter to spread even to the page delivering the paper card with McConnell’s question to the rostrum.

It was the ninth day in the chamber for the third presidential impeachment trial in U.S. history, and the 100 senators appeared tired from the two-week grind and eager to move to a section of the trial where they might speak and vote.

As an attorney for the Trump team answered the first question after the dinner break, at least 40 desks sat empty. Utah Republican Mike Lee used his index finger to scroll through his Apple Watch. (The device is technically forbidden in the chamber, but that seems to now only apply to the galleries, not the senators themselves.)

McConnell removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes. Vermont independent Bernie Sanders removed his glasses as well, and totally covered his face with his hands.

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Democratic Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico chatted in their back-row desks.

Maryland Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen sent a question to the desk on behalf of Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar, but she was not yet back from dinner.

She emerged from the cloakroom to take her desk midway through the answer, then left the chamber again when it was done.

The senators appeared to be looking for distractions all day.

At one point, Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander attentively listened as Roberts read a question out loud, but then flipped through a thin book during the responses.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley tackled some housekeeping at his desk, opening and closing the top of the mahogany desk and then getting to work on the drawer.

The Iowa Republican put a notebook and pen on top of his desk and a rogue single binder clip. He pulled out a large stack of printouts and put them on the empty chair next to him. He shuffled things around in the drawer, making room to put the big stack of printouts back in. He used the binder clip on another stack of paper and tucked it away.

Eventually, he set up a large black binder, open sideways on top of the open drawer, the cover sticking up over the top of the desk looking like a laptop. Finally settled, he read through documents and took some notes.

Republican senators swapped seats Thursday afternoon to confer with colleagues to fine-tune questions they were collaborating on.

Ben Sasse of Nebraska slipped into neighbor Tim Scott’s empty seat to chat with Rob Portman of Ohio. When Scott came in from the cloakroom, he sat in Sasse’s seat without a second thought.

A bit later, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana sat in the seat of Michael D. Crapo of Idaho to hash out details with fellow Idahoan Jim Risch, both leaning over a notebook. When Cassidy stood up, he headed to the GOP cloakroom.

Hawaii Democrat Brian Schatz had a crumpled brown paper bag on his desk, full of what appeared to be cough drops. He leaned forward over his desk to share a big handful with West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin III, who received most of them, but some fell to the floor.

Manchin dumped the drops in his desk and then grabbed the casualties off the floor. The exchange raised the eyebrows of Wisconsin Democrat Tammy Baldwin, who was in the middle of it all, sitting in front of Schatz and next to Manchin.

Baldwin has battled a cough and cold for most of the trial and Manchin shared some of his cough drop bounty with her.

Texas Republican John Cornyn let out a big sneeze in the early hours of the session, using both hands to cover his mouth.

Minnesota Democrat Tina Smith tweeted late Thursday that about half the people in the Senate chamber have some version of a cough or cold. Outside the chamber and in the galleries, there is much talk of the “Senate plague” that has afflicted those spending so much time Senate side.

“It’s like a petri dish. Even Chief Justice Roberts was clearing his throat. One theory is that we all used the same pen to sign the oath book, and here we are,” Smith tweeted. “Everyone is looking ahead to the discussion tomorrow of witnesses.”

Those discussions appeared to be starting in earnest Thursday.

At the 3:40 p.m. break, several senators lingered in what amounted to an impromptu bipartisan couples mixer.

Manchin walked over to the GOP side to speak with seated Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio. That conversation ended with Manchin moving down the aisle to encounter Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., in some frisky mock-pushing of each other.

Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins had a lengthy conversation with Washington Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell, then walked arm-in-arm out of the chamber with Manchin.

That left Cantwell to hang out and wait for Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who was wrapping up a lengthy and hand-gesture-heavy discussion with McConnell.

A GOP aide mentioned that the pair were matching. They laughed and held open their black blazers to show off deep blue/purple dresses.

Cantwell and Murkowski, the leaders of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, spent the next few minutes talking, backs to the press gallery.

Later still in the break, Manchin poked his head into the GOP cloakroom.

Loud reactions and laughter erupted from inside. He was welcomed with handshakes and pats on the back. He exited with a can of Pringles, which he seemed pretty happy about, showing them off to GOP staffers in the chamber.

He then made a beeline for his own Democratic cloakroom, where there was no fanfare upon his arrival.

In the afternoon, an audible murmur emanated from both sides of the aisle when the chief justice read aloud Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s question asking whether the trial’s proceedings reflect poorly on the chief justice himself.

Roberts did not visibly react to the contents of the card about himself as he read aloud the question from the Massachusetts Democrat.

“In a time when large majorities of Americans have lost faith in government, does the fact that the chief justice is presiding over an impeachment trial in which Republican senators have thus far refused to allow witnesses and evidence contribute to the loss of legitimacy of the chief justice, the Supreme Court, and the Constitution?” Roberts read.

Democratic House manager Adam B. Schiff attempted to quell the tensions by responding that the chief justice has “presided admirably.”

As proceedings got underway, there was a scurry to ditch contraband cell phones. Cassidy handed his to a page, and Indiana Republican Sen. Todd Young jogged to the cloakroom, phone in hand, to stash his own.

At one point, there was some confusion at the House impeachment managers’ table when they were asked to respond to a question from Alabama Democrat Doug Jones on the House’s subpoena authority.

Schiff and Rep. Zoe Lofgren, both of California, both stood up to respond to the question. After a quick conversation, Schiff headed to the microphone with no notes. He told senators that the specific list that Jones asked for wasn’t immediately available, but they could compile it. Lofgren jumped up and handed Schiff the list.

On Wednesday night, Lofgren admitted her enthusiasm and confidence in the question-and-answer portion of the trial.

“I want to stand up and answer all the questions,” she told senators.

House lawmakers made their way to the Senate after their own vote series across the Capitol. Reps. Dean Phillips of Minnesota and Tom Malinowski of New Jersey, both Democratic freshmen, stood by the doors behind the Republican desks before being pointed to the Democratic side of the chamber.

Reps. Chip Roy and Daniel Crenshaw of Texas sat in the back of the Republican side, along with West Virginia’s Alex X. Mooney.

Wyoming Republican Sen. John Barrasso handed a folded piece of newspaper to a page, and said a few words to the teen. The page took the clipping and showed it to another page along the side of the chamber, both smiling widely.

The page then tucked it into the inside pocket of his signature navy polyester page blazer.

Was it a new photo with the page in the background? A clipping from a hometown paper? That secret remains between Barrasso and the page.

Tia Yang, Griffin Connolly, Jacob Metz, Patrick Kelley and Jason Dick contributed to this story

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