Covering the Trump impeachment: Behind the scenes with ABC News

ABC News(WASHINGTON) — Impeachment.It’s been a story like no other. Literally, history in the making.It’s dominated the nation’s headlines and TV newcasts and consumed Washington politics since last fall, with President Donald Trump’s fate hanging in the balance.What began in September when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced Democrats would begin a months-long impeachment inquiry has now culminated, after a nearly three-week Senate trial, in his acquittal.But there’s more to this story — that you didn’t see.We asked members of the ABC News team to open up their reporter notebooks and give their impressions and insights from the front lines.The Senate showdown: OverviewBy ABC News Supervising Congressional Reporter Trish TurnerHouse managers knew they were walking onto fairly hostile terrain from the start as they strode into the Senate chamber with their two impeachment articles, but the divisive tone set by Rep. Jerry Nadler was something of a surprise.All along, the argument was going to be about calling witnesses, and the focus was always going to be on four key GOP “moderates” who might be persuaded to go along with Democrats to force the issue. But really, the universe that the Trump team and GOP officials were somewhat worried about was actually about 10 GOP senators. Their fear was a potential domino effect.There’s an age-old marketing adage, “Know your audience,” that seemed apt when considering the sales job the managers faced with senators. In more than a decade since I’ve been covering the Senate, one thing is certain: senators regard it as the “upper chamber,” far above the melee of the House. So, when Manager Nadler, in a reproachful tone, told senators that they would be casting a “treacherous vote” if they opposed calling witnesses, it was all the more surprising. One of my southern aunts would call that “trying to catch your bees with vinegar, not honey,” aka – something that rarely ever works.Immediately, key GOP senators like Susan Collins of Maine, and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski visibly bristled, both (among many) were insulted. In the Senate chamber, you could see the scorn on their faces, both sitting beside one another in their assigned seats. Was it an unforced error? The new tone set the next day by lead impeachment Manager Adam Schiff seemed to indicate yes, it had been.But Nadler was not the only lawmaker to set a partisan tone. GOP Leader Mitch McConnell did so when he pushed aside Democrats to press forward a majority-only organizing resolution to set the rules for the trial, forgoing any closed-door meeting among all 100 senators as happened during the Clinton proceeding. It was not surprising; the leaders do not have the kind of personal relationship that the GOP and Dem leaders had back in the Clinton impeachment trial. Back then, GOP Leader Trent Lott and his Democratic counterpart, Tom Daschle, truly had a close relationship.Despite numerous Republicans indicating varying levels of interest in witnesses, like former national security adviser John Bolton, McConnell – known for his deft skills at whipping a vote – was able to wrangle his GOP conference to agree to voting after opening arguments and questions.The real fight of this whole impeachment trial was always going to be over whether to have witnesses, and at one point, during the question and answer period, our sources indicated the vote had gone south for the White House, despite days of lobbying by the president’s top aides and allies. Down on the second floor, outside the chamber, GOP aides looked shell-shocked.But that did not last long.Word from sources leaked out that Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., was on board with the effort to block witnesses. And while some focused on the possibility of Chief Justice John Roberts breaking a tie, that was never a real possibility. Essentially, the conference isolated the hold-out votes, Trump allies pressed any potential supporters of witnesses, and the strategy worked.Still, Democrats feel they may have won the war despite losing that battle over witnesses. The goal of Democratic leader Chuck Schumer was to define in the minds of Americans that a fair trial equals witnesses and documents, and polls have indicated he was right with more than 70 percent of Americans – a plurality of Republicans – saying witnesses were a must.Whether Schumer planted a seed that will bear fruit remains to be seen. That will play out over the weeks and months ahead as we head toward what could be a pivotal election.Visibly-exhausted senators – finally unrestrained from the impeachment gag – were given the first part of this week to lay out their positions, but most clearly just want to head home. In fact, the Senate is closing up early this week, leaving after the final votes on impeachment Wednesday afternoon. The palpable feeling in the halls – in talking with members – is that something was broken through this process, and the trial laid bare what has been a building reality for quite some time: there are very few moderates left, few senators who will come together to form coalitions to get things done. That means, with each deeply-divisive moment, like the Justice Brett Kavanaugh battle and this current impeachment clash, the chances of grand bipartisan compromises gets further and further from reality.House managers: Seriousness and hope against the oddsBy ABC News White House and Capitol Hill Reporter Katherine FauldersThe House impeachment managers arguably faced one of the toughest tasks — presenting their case about how the president abused his power, obstructed Congress and therefore should be removed from office to a Republican-controlled Senate. While Republicans and the White House (and admittedly those of us in the news media) knew how the movie would ultimately end, Democrats held out hope that they could compel the Senate to call witnesses to hear the full story.The House managers took their role extremely seriously. Prior to the start of the trial, the managers met every morning in a tucked away room on the first floor of the Capitol. They would all trickle in, carrying their notebooks full of trial briefs and prep materials, working with their attorneys on the arguments and even preparing questions and cross examination for potential witnesses — especially for the president’s former national security adviser John Bolton, with hopes that the witness vote would go in their favor.The House managers knew they were presenting their case for the first time to senators, regardless of party, who had not followed every detail of the House investigation.As the stories trickled out about the president’s comments about the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and Bolton, the managers became more optimistic.Inside the chamber — printouts at their table of the breaking news stories — with Chairman Adam Schiff reading the story out loud — hoping it would sway those Republicans who aren’t so quick to pick up the New York Times in the morning.When it came to the vote on witnesses last Friday, every 20 minutes I was getting calls from both Republican and Democratic sources who both thought the vote was going in their favor, then they thought it wasn’t, then it was again.Sen. Lisa Murkowski asked a question about why the Senate *shouldn’t* call Bolton. Slight smiles from the House managers’ table who thought she would actually vote to call witnesses (she ultimately didn’t). I overheard her saying to the Senate Majority Whip John Thune “keeps you on your toes” about her vote, which again, kept us all in suspense. Sen. Lamar Alexander — a McConnell confidant and key vote on witnesses — had stayed silent on what he would do.From there, it was reporting whiplash. Looking back at my notebook, I jotted down from source conversations — “White House very worried about Lamar Alexander,” “White House sources think there will be witnesses,” “Dems think they will get JB” (my shorthand for John Bolton). Ten minutes later — “We think we’re fine” a White House source texted. Another wrote “phew” to me, prior to the vote.Minutes before Sen. Lamar Alexander took any notion of calling witnesses off the table by announcing he would vote no to call any, Mark Meadows, one of the president’s closest allies, told me as the elevator door was shutting “I don’t know” how he was going to vote — with a tone of cautious optimism, but uncomfortable uncertainty, echoing that sentiment I had heard from my White House sources.While the House managers were not successful in convincing the Senate to remove the president from office, they were able to get Republicans to admit his conduct was inappropriate and made the case that Trump will do this again — something some Democratic sources have told me is a win, given that they knew from the start he would be acquitted.”The truth will ultimately come out,” one Democratic source involved in the impeachment told me.Trump’s legal team: Playing to an audience of oneBy ABC News White House and Capitol Hill Reporter Katherine FauldersFrom the beginning, no one could quite figure out who would be defending the president in the Senate trial. Just hours before the White House was required to submit their first formal response to the Senate acknowledging the articles of impeachment, came a press release announcing the team.It was typical Trump.While White House counsel Pat Cipollone had been in change since the beginning — along with his then-little known deputies Mike Purpura and Pat Philbin who had been tirelessly working on the White House defense for months — the president was back and forth on what he wanted the defense to look like.Does he turn the Senate chamber into a reality television show with his most outspoken defenders in the House presenting his defense on the Senate floor (someone McConnell objected to) or does he defer to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s decorum? Ultimately, no House members made the cut, instead working with the lawyers in a “war room” off the Senate floor on their messaging — impeachment surrogates in a sense, who would speak to reporters during the breaks.The first day, Chief Justice John Roberts admonished both the White House and the House impeachment managers who were lobbing attacks left and right accusing the other side of lying. Nadler accused the senators of voting for a cover up, with Cipollone lashed out at him, saying he should be embarrassed.And that performance, White House sources say, was clearly for the “audience of one” — the president who was watching how forcefully his team would defend him.In the days leading up to the trial, the president was on the phone with confidants asking how they thought Cipollone would perform, what about the others like Philbin and Purpura, who are more measured lawyers who most certainly were not going to present in ways like Sekulow and Cipollone. Sources say the style of Purpura and Philbin was preferred by those moderate Senators who preferred the more even-keeled tone.For me, some of the most interesting moments came inside the chamber watching the White House legal team.The lawyers passed notes and coached each other along the way during the Q&A period from senators.When Chairman Schiff said the president’s lawyers did not once address the president’s character, the legal team sat there, uncomfortably.The legal team constantly was looking for those senators — Romney, Collins, Murkowski, Alexander, who were key votes on witnesses — to see how they would react to their arguments. The most stressful time I observed was before this very vote on whether to call witnesses.Around 9 p.m., a note was passed down the legal teams table. One attorney put his hand on his forehead and shoot his head back and forth. Jay Sekulow then looked over to see where Sen. Alexander was, observing the Collins/Murkowski relationship, seeing how Romney reacted to particular arguments (Romney’s vote to convict caught many senior aides by surprise).We also did see some familiar faces — like Kenneth Starr who was a central player in the impeachment against President Clinton, and Alan Dershowitz, a controversial former Harvard professor and constitutional scholar who used his speaking role during Trump’s defense to argue that even if the facts of the case were proven, Trump’s actions didn’t amount to an impeachable offense — something the White House lawyers even had to walk back.Sources close to the president acknowledge there is a general sense of “what will he do next” which creates some worry. But for now, a sense of relief. In the words of Sekulow, “the president won.”First row at the impeachment showBy ABC News Capitol Hill Reporter John ParkinsonThroughout the trial, I was fortunate to report from a first-row seat in the Senate balcony press gallery, looking down on 100 senators fidgeting in their desks. Because the Senate’s video cameras focused their attention on the president’s defense and House managers as they presented their case, our small team created a rotation alternating between transmitting color from inside the chamber and crafting reports highlighting the most compelling and important substance of the trial.There were no electronic devices permitted inside the chamber, so reporters had to rely on “the pen and pad” to record the first draft of history.From Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul’s early fixation with crossword puzzles, to Arizona Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s daily fashion show and the permanent scowl on Sen. Bernie Sander’s face as the presidential contender slouched in his seat, my perch above the GOP side of the chamber provided me with an exceptional view of the proceedings below.The Decorum Guidelines for Senate Trial state that “Reading materials should be confined to only those readings which pertain to the matter before the Senate” but apparently Sen. Rand Paul missed the memo. During the early days of the trial, I repeatedly spied the senator using a piece of paper to cover the crossword, but he had the clues uncovered to the left. When he was prepared to write an answer, he briefly moved the paper concealing the crossword, revealing a breach in decorum. By the end, the Kentucky Republican had no materials on his desk and was often absent from the proceedings.Sinema seems to be the social butterfly of the Senate. She was clearly the Democrat most-willing to cross the aisle to chat with her Republican colleagues. After she repeatedly applauded President Trump during the State of the Union address on Tuesday night, her vote seemed to be in play right up to the moment she announced Wednesday that she would vote guilty on both articles of impeachment.As I surveyed the chamber, I often was repeatedly struck by the senators’ posture. Sanders and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer were almost always slouching at their desks, while the women senators exhibited superior pose throughout. In my opinion, Georgia Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler, the newest member of the Senate after she was sworn into office Jan. 6, won the award for best posture – sitting up straight as an arrow throughout the long, grueling hours of the trial. Honorable mention goes to Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins, Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Michigan Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow.Throughout the trial, the Senate pages – high school students who serve as runners in the chamber — appeared to be in a fierce contest with each other to compel the senators to use the bathroom – racing to replace half-empty glasses of water without any encouragement from the senators. Soon, the pages were entrusted with running questions from senators’ desks up to the chief justice to read aloud. Amazingly, I never noticed one of the pages trip, spill or otherwise falter in the execution of any of their responsibilities.The president’s acquittal seemed predestined – as the lead House manager, Rep. Adam Schiff, ultimately conceded that the 67-vote threshold for conviction was “prohibitively high” during his closing argument on Monday.“It is said that a single man or woman of courage makes a majority. Is there one among you who will say enough?” Schiff, D-Calif., asked, looking over at Utah Republican Sen. Mitt Romney in the back row of GOP desks. While Romney maintained an expert poker face and did not appear to respond in any manner, Schiff ultimately won Romney’s vote to find the president guilty on the first article of impeachment – abuse of power.Speaking with the senators, behind the scenesBy ABC News Senior Washington Reporter Devin DwyerFor three weeks, senators sat in silence during the impeachment trial of Donald Trump.But once the gavel dropped, during breaks for the bathroom or dinner, the lawmakers-turned-jurors streamed into the hallways off the Senate floor to sound off.Clusters of journalists peppered the lawmakers with questions about the president’s conduct and the potential consequences of an acquittal or conviction.For many Republicans, in particular, the answers were daily feats of verbal acrobatics.“Would an acquittal send the message it’s okay for a president to use the power of the office to conduct opposition research?” I asked Indiana Sen. Mike Braun, one of the president’s staunchest defenders.Not exactly, he told me on the fourth day of the trial.“All the information we’re looking at, it’s in a prism, a very binary outcome. You’re either acquitted, or you’re convicted, and if you’re convicted it’s the death sentence,” Braun said. “There’s no kind of range, or spectrum.”Braun volunteered that a formal “censure” of the president had been privately discussed as a possible step to curb similar conduct in the future. “There’s a feeling that this [conviction] isn’t going to go through, and the question earlier — does this, doesn’t acquittal send the wrong message?” he said.But three hours later, after word of Braun’s comments spread across Capitol Hill, he did an about face.“There’s no appetite in the caucus for that right now,” he said flatly when asked by another reporter about his censure comments. “This process has been trying enough.” (He falsely blamed this reporter for raising the idea of censure when truth be told he brought it up unprompted on his own.)The orders had gone out for Republicans to get in line.“I hadn’t heard nothing about that. It has not come up with any of our lunches and our discussions has not been discussed at all,” added Sen. John Barrasso, the Republican Conference Chair, standing by Braun’s side.A head-spinning episode in a trial of head-spinning twists and turns.Defenders of the president first insisted his conduct was “perfect” — nothing wrong. Then, weeks on, there was a quiet concession on the facts — that the president maybe had “at best, mixed motives,” in the words of Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, on the trial’s seventh day.“There was a policy decision that had incidental personal political benefits,” Cornyn explained.By the end of the trial, many of the same Republicans were incrementally more forceful in condemnation of the president, even as they vowed to vote to acquit.Trump has learned his lesson and won’t do it again, said Sen. Susan Collins of Maine.Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa said the president had handled Ukraine simply “in the wrong manner.”Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said he didn’t agree with Trump’s behavior, while Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska chided the president for “shameful and wrong” conduct that couldn’t be addressed with a flawed congressional accountability process.The third impeachment in American history was largely a shining moment for Republican unity standing solidly behind their president – with one exception: Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah.“There’s no question in my mind that if their names had not been ‘Biden,’ the president would never have done what he did,” Romney said in an emotional speech on the Senate trial’s last day.“What he did was not perfect. No, it was a flagrant assault on our electoral rights, our national security, and our fundamental values, corrupting an election to keep oneself in office. It is perhaps the most abusive and destructive violation of one’s oath of office that I can imagine.”The uncharacteristically quiet presidentBy ABC News White House Producer Ben GittlesonCovering Trump’s remarks became more of a practice in refreshing Twitter than engaging with him in person.His extended stop-and-chat sessions on the way to the helicopter that would whisk him away from the White House became more infrequent, with him more often than not striding past waiting reporters with nary more a wave. Gone were the days of lengthy chats, at least for now.TVs in the West Wing were tuned to the House hearings and the Senate trial on a daily basis. White House officials were typically willing to share updates on the president’s impeachment strategy – or spin developments – but were often immediately contradicted by his pronouncements on Twitter – or his remarks to the press elsewhere, like before meetings in the Oval Office.While Trump limited his in-person interactions with reporters, his Twitter feed told a different story. Hundreds of tweets and retweets about impeachment – some inflammatory attacks on Democrats – gave a window into his mind and his frequently changing strategy.The White House also created counter-programming to generate split screens and portray Trump hard at work. The day the House delivered the articles of impeachment to the Senate, for instance, the president held a signing ceremony for “phase one” of a trade deal with China. After the trial had begun in earnest, he unveiled a proposal for Middle East peace and, the next day, held a large signing ceremony for the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement on the White House lawn.But impeachment crept in regardless, as Trump referred to Republican lawmaker attendees’ support and even invited one of his lawyers to the peace plan rollout.Kept from holding senators accountableBy ABC News Producer Sarah KolinovskyCovering a historic story like an impeachment trial led to some unique challenges for journalists on Capitol Hill.Citing security concerns, the Senate sergeant at arms and Capitol Police imposed new restrictions on journalists, dictating where journalists could stand and talk to senators, and blocking access to some areas that are routinely available. Many of the decisions about press access were up to the office of the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.Capitol Hill has long been a bastion of open press access. Journalists here are normally able to walk with senators to and from their meetings, and even join them on elevator and subway rides, if invited. The restrictions around the Senate impeachment trial were therefore fairly jarring for reporters on the Hill.One of the most onerous restrictions was a security hold implemented a half hour before the start and after the end of proceedings each day. The hold locked down elevators and required journalists to stand in pens, unable to move around and approach key senators, such as Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, to get a sense of their thinking as the trial unfolded.“The new procedures rolled out this week across the Capitol grounds, some of them without explanation or justification, have made it more difficult for journalists to do their work and gain access to senators, including those senators who are willing to engage with the Capitol Hill press corps,” the Radio Television Correspondents Association, a group of journalists that works to ensure access and First Amendment rights in on Capitol Hill, said in a statement on Jan. 17.While the RTCA was eventually able to negotiate some increased access for journalists, many restrictions remained, including a magnetometer journalists were required to pass through before entering the Senate chamber. Only two cameras were allowed in the Senate chamber, which meant the American people could never see the reaction on senators’ faces during the proceedings, nor see who was paying attention and who was not. Journalists could witness these scenes in person in the chamber, and relay them to the public once back outside.Even with restricted access, journalists on the Hill logged hundreds of hours covering the trial. With hours stretching from the early morning to sometimes as late as 11 p.m. each day, massive food deliveries became a common sight on the Hill, with ravenous reporters rushing to eat a sandwich or a slice of pizza on the way, once gain, to keep telling the story.Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.