WASHINGTON — It has been a unique and interesting week for Sen. Jeff Merkley.
The Democratic senator from Oregon spoke with reporters via conference call Thursday morning to pull back the curtain on what it is like being a senator during an impeachment trial. Senators have been asked to absorb hours of detailed, complex presentations so far.
“I know I’ve taken over 50 pages of notes trying to track and understand the arguments put forward,” Merkley said after the first day of arguments.
Under rules voted on in the Senate, each side has a total of 24 hours spread over three days to make their opening arguments. The House impeachment managers acting as prosectors made their arguments Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Trump’s lawyers will start their arguments on Saturday and resume on Monday.
Some watchers of the proceedings have criticized senators they’ve caught doodling, reading books, playing with fidget spinners or nodding off. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., was reportedly working on a crossword puzzle at his desk on Thursday. But Merkley told reporters that despite the long hours, he felt senators from both parties had been “pretty attentive.”
“You may have half a dozen people standing up to stretch on the Republican side and half a dozen on the Democratic side,” he said. “I don’t think you would sense a difference in terms of attention to the presentations.”
Senators are banned from talking or using cellphones during the proceedings and are only supposed to read materials directly related to the impeachment trial. They are only allowed to drink milk or water, but can grab snacks from the “candy drawer” on the floor.
After the call with reporters on Thursday morning, Merkley said he would be heading over to take a look at a one-page classified document — the only document available so far for the trial.
“In the (Bill) Clinton trial, 90,000 documents were provided upfront as a foundation of the trial,” he said.
While senators voted on some rules for the trial before opening arguments began, the vote on allowing witnesses and documents to be presented has been pushed to after the opening arguments are done. Merkley said he was concerned about the fact his Republican colleagues were facing “tremendous pressure” from Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to not allow the inclusion of such evidence at all.
“If the foreman of the jury was working with the defendant to block documents and witnesses from ever being presented, that’s what you would expect in a trial in Russia or China, but not the United States,” he said.
Senators spent this week listening to House prosecutors lay out the case for the two articles of impeachment the House sent to the Senate. The first — abuse of power — states that President Donald Trump improperly used his office as president by withholding a sought-after meeting and millions of dollars of military aid that Congress had dictated should go to Ukraine.
They argue the evidence shows he did so not out of concern for the interests of the United States, but as a way to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into announcing an investigation into his political rival Joe Biden, and an investigation into a theory that it was Ukraine, not Russia as United States intelligence agencies have stated, that hacked Democratic National Convention servers during the 2016 election.
The second article of impeachment is for obstruction of justice, stemming from the fact that Trump directed his administration to ignore Congressional subpoenas for witnesses and documents, which they did.
On Saturday, senators will switch to hearing arguments from Trump’s lawyers, who will argue that Trump’s actions on Ukraine reflected his concern about Ukrainian corruption and were not a “quid pro quo” requirement for the Ukrainians to help him in his re-election bid — something they say is evidenced by the fact he has since released the aid despite no announcement of the investigations he requested.
They are also expected to argue that Trump was not breaking the law when he did not turn over documents that were subpoenaed, because he was exercising executive privilege to protect confidential information.
Merkley said he is bound by oath to listen to both sides with an open mind before coming to a conclusion about what Trump did and whether what he did rises to the level of removal from office.
“I’m committed to doing that as close as I can as humanly possible as an impartial juror, and I’ll be working hard on that,” he said.
Oregon’s other senator, Ron Wyden, is also a juror in the trial. On Wednesday, he released a video saying he had been hearing from constituents in Oregon that what they wanted was “a full and fair trial,” which he said should include presentation of witnesses and documents.