For weeks, the Senate Majority leadership has negotiated with the Senate Sergeant-At-Arms (SAA), Capitol Police and the Standing Committee of Correspondents to set severely restrictive safety provisions for the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump.
Under the significantly heightened measures that appear to have been endorsed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, journalists cannot freely move near the Senate chamber, nor can they follow or talk with senators as they do on a regular basis.
The plan also places magnetometers and Capitol Police at the entry to the chamber’s press gallery, imposing a second security clearance for reporters after the Capitol entrance scanners.
The restrictions during the trial also will interfere with C-SPAN broadcasts, which have come to document all open sessions of Senate and House business. The network requested access from McConnell’s office to broadcast the trial in December but has yet to receive a response. As of now, broadcast networks will have to transmit the proceedings from Senate-controlled cameras which, in comparison to the multi-camera C-SPAN setup, is constrained to a single camera angle.
The lack of communication between members of the press and those negotiating security has also led to confusion surrounding the rules. Reporters have been forced to discern from rumors and the truth to figure out what new security measures are in place. Even meetings between journalists and Senate officials have failed to clarify the issue.
The suppression of press access drew criticism from journalists who argued that the new regulations were overly restrictive. Nearly 60 different news organizations signed onto a Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press letter requesting a reevaluation of the restrictions in place. Individual reporters have also pushed back on the Senate for restricting documentation of the historic moment and setting such a dangerous precedent.
Elisabeth Bumiller, the New York Times’ Washington bureau chief, said that the restrictions “will severely limit the ability of reporters to gather news during one of the most historic events in the nation’s history.”
“These limits are far more burdensome than the rules that govern press access in the Capitol, even those in effect during the last impeachment trial, and will prevent journalists from freely documenting a public debate in Congress,” Bumiller said.
And Sarah Wire, a reporter at the Los Angeles Times, described the restrictions as “kind of a shock.”
“There’s long been this understanding that we both serve the same people at the end of the day, and that it’s a mutually beneficial relationship,” Wire told The Times. “Senators want to talk to us because they know we’re communicating their message to their voters back home.”
In response, Senate Rules Committee Chairman Roy Blunt (R-MO) justified the press restrictions by citing concerns about safety after Capitol Hill was flooded with protestors during Senate confirmation hearings for Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
“I’m concerned about that,” Blunt told Politico. “The ability of members to move to this important responsibility without having to fight their way onto an elevator or fight their way between people who come between them in the [Senate] buildings, that’s my concern.”
Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) also expressed concern about decorum, noting that senators were “harassed” during the Kavanaugh hearings, referencing the widely documented moment two sexual assault survivors confronted former Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) over his vote in an elevator.
Other senators distanced themselves from the Republicans who had endorsed the tighter measures. Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) referred to the restrictions as a “big mistake,” and Sen. Mike Braun (R-IN) said: “I don’t think you guys should ever be restricted.”
Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar also disagreed with the measures and said she had “made it very clear” to Blunt that she believed it is important for the press to have “open access,” while Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) released a statement calling for the measures to be walked back, stating that they prevented the public from accessing the proceedings.