WASHINGTON — “This is going to be a shitshow,” said the congressional reporter.
“Yes, it is,” said another.
It was Wednesday morning, and members of the Capitol Hill press corps were assessing what to expect over the next 10 hours leading up to the vote to impeach President Trump. Not much has happened so far. The House of Representatives spent the morning volleying pointless procedural motions (i.e. DEMOCRATIC MOTION TO PREVENT GOP PROTEST VOTE), which would be followed by an interminable debate that would literally put some of the older lawmakers to sleep in their chairs on the House floor. Democracy in action.
But there were signs chaos was coming. Camera crews filled Statuary Hall, essentially a one-room museum separating the Capitol rotunda from the House chamber. Notices pinned up around the building warned of today-only rule changes. An influx of reporters with temporary credentials representing Swiss radio or Norwegian TV turned the press gallery into a game of musical chairs. When one representing the latter identified herself to Rep. Mark Meadows outside the not-usually-there phalanx of camera crews set up down in Statuary Hall, he let out a laugh before promising her a few quick minutes. (Despite his amusement that Scandanvian journalists were in town to cover impeachment, Meadows refused to ascribe much historical import on the day’s proceedings. “We’ve impeached other presidents, so I don’t know that it’s historic,” he told me later.)
I had to be informed all of this was out of the ordinary though, because I too was a reporter with a temporary credential, in from out of town to witness history. In fact, I’d never even set foot in the Capitol, as wide-eyed Wednesday as the tourists in the visitors’ gallery. I wear a suit as often as I attended weddings, and I’ve taken in the three years of governmental machinations surrounding Trump’s presidency almost exclusively through clips uploaded to Twitter, YouTube streams, and the 15 minutes of cable news I was subjected to in my dentist’s waiting room earlier this month. I’d wondered — perhaps even dared to hope — that witnessing this in-person rather than filtered through 10 layers of spin and punditry would instill an understanding that had eluded me, that I would be able to discern some sort of deep-seated dignity in the process that would indicate the gears of government will be able to turn as they were intended once the nation moves beyond the Trump era.
Unlike the tourists though, I did have a press pass — acquired after an expedition through a labyrinth of halls lined with metal detectors and informational desks — which meant I was free to roam in and out of places like the Speaker’s Lobby, where weary lawmakers relaxed in front of roaring fires as the marathon debate progressed; the press gallery, where journalist pre-wrote their stories about the impeachment everyone knew was coming that night; and the various gilded halls lining the House Chamber, populated by a smattering of press, House staffers, and a never-ending supply of anonymous lawmakers, identifiable only by the congressional pins on their lapels. (For every Mark Meadows, there are 15 old white guys who look just like him, representing whatever district of whichever state.)
Over the course of the debate that made up the bulk of the day, representatives were each given the chance to say their piece about impeachment. The speeches didn’t vary much; the arguments on both sides had already been heard and litigated ad nauseum. Some members used their time to try to become a little less anonymous, most notably Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-Ga.), who compared the effort to impeach Trump to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
Outside, the halls were mostly quiet, save for low-frequency hum drum. Stenographers coming and going. Security workers debating fast food to fill the time:
“I like Chick-Fil-A. It’s a healthier option.”
“We’re talking about fried chicken. There is no healthy option.”
Occasionally, something would disrupt this holding pattern. A little before noon, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) emerged from her office off Statuary Hall. Surrounding by what seemed like 20 people, she made her way to the House chamber, taking short choppy steps and keeping her eyes ahead as cameras shutters fired and journalists lobbed futile questions. She disappeared behind the chamber door within 15 seconds.
The shitshow portended earlier began to take shape around 6:00 or 7:00, as the final members spoke and the historic vote neared. Seats in the House chamber — which, as things like this tend to be, is much smaller in person than it seems on TV — began to fill with the lawmakers who had been filtering in and out throughout the day. So did the visitor galleries above the floor. Filmmaker Michael Moore strode by wearing New Balances and a black Champion sweatshirt.
Along with the other journalists who couldn’t get a ticket to sit in the press gallery I stood against the windowed doors separating the chamber from the Speaker’s Lobby, ear pressed against a crack to try to pick up what was being said. Doug Collins, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee who had been moderating his members’ time throughout the day, received a standing ovation before ceding the rest of his time to Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who also received a hearty applause from the Republican side of the room. Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff countered, without the aid of notes, eliciting cheers from the Democrats.
On TV all of this is packaged neatly, framed by network logos and chyrons and pundit commentary. In person it’s easier to take it in for what it actually is: a bunch of grown men and women yelling at each other to no discernable end, hooting and hollering as they carry out impractical rituals passed down over hundreds of years.
Eventually, Speaker Pelosi announced the vote. Democrats yelled AYE!, followed by Republicans trying to top their enthusiasm with a unified NAY! It was one of the countless bizarre formalities of the day, as a roll call, in which members walk to the front to officially register their vote so an exact tally can be recorded, was inevitable.
As they did so, the journalists huddled around the door in the Speaker’s Lobby tried to pick various lawmakers out of the fracas, most notably Tulsi Gabbard, who had not been seen throughout the day and had previously expressed reservations about impeachment.
“There’s Tulsi!” someone said eventually, and there she was milling around with her fellow Democrats in a royal blue blazer. When the final tally read that one member was marked themselves as “present,” we figured she was behind it, a suspicion soon confirmed.
After Trump had officially been impeached, a few lawmakers joined us in the Speaker’s Lobby to talk after the vote was final. Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), who earlier this year brought fried chicken to the Judiciary Committee hearing Attorney General William Barr refused to attend, sat on a bench surrounded by reporters. “Republicans weren’t Kool-Aid drinkers,” he said when asked to explain to explain why previous impeachments weren’t as split as the one on Wednesday. “Now they’ve all drunk the Kool-Aid.”
Republican Whip Steve Scalise stopped by a few minutes later. “This is a stain on Democratic Party,” he said. “They’re the party of impeachment.”
But most lawmakers simply donned their overcoats and left, like it was the end of a dinner party, and it didn’t take long for the Capitol to empty out almost entirely. I went back into Statuary Hall to see if anything was happening. The TV crews were breaking down. I stepped over the small brass tile that noted where the desk of Andrew Johsnon, the president to be impeached, sat while he was a congressman from Tennessee. Then I made my way into the rotunda, the underside of capital’s iconic spired dome.
One tourist I spoke to earlier in the day compared seeing Trump’s impeachment in person to seeing an artist perform live. After watching countless congressional proceedings on TV, here was a chance to observe the gears of democracy turn without any production tricks. As is the case with a live concert, everything that comes through on the record is enhanced. Yes, there really is that much vitriol between Republicans and Democrats. It was all too real in the pink faces of the Republicans booing and yelling for roll call votes, and in the righteous, urgent oratory of Democrats like John Lewis and Adam Schiff. There was no deep insight gleaned, only a sobering confirmation of everything I already knew was there.
Earlier in the day, the rotunda was swarming with tourism groups and hordes of kids on field trips, oblivious to what was happening a few feet away in the chamber. “180 feet tall!” a guide said of the height of “E Pluribus Unum” fresco painted on the dome’s underside before warning that Statuary Hall, the next stop, may be a little busier than usual today.
But now the historic chamber at the center of the Capitol was empty, and vast, and eerily quiet. Occasionally someone would walk by, feet clacking loudly across the polished stone floor like pebbles dropping into a placid pond. The walls of the circular room were adorned with enormous paintings of pivotal moments in American history. The Declaration of Independence being signed. George Washignton addressing Congress. Columbus discovering the continent. Hundreds of years of history hanging stolid in the silence, as unaware of Doug Collins’ tantrums as the kids on their field trips. There was some consolation in that, the immutability of this room and all it represents in the face of the countless Doug Collinses who have cycled in and out of the chamber a few paces away.
The terror of the Trump era, though, is the realization it’s brought that none of this is actually immutable. The paintings will always be there but the ideals they stand for is as fragile as the integrity of the lawmakers who took an oath to uphold them. This sunk in as I watched their red faces deliver passionate fit after passionate fit in defense of a president with an open antipathy toward these ideals, and then go sit down and have a laugh with another lawmaker. It was all a game. There was no integrity. There was no dignity.
But in the empty rotunda a half hour after the president was impeached — a historic moment despite what Mark Meadows says — it at least felt like the ideals the building represents are more powerful than the people in it. This was all here long before Meadows and Doug Collins and Donald Trump arrived, and it will be here long after they’re gone. There’s at least some hope in that, I thought, or at least I wanted to believe there was.