Senate bucks precedent to restrict press access during impeachment trial

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The press restrictions are an 'outrageous breach of press freedom,' according to Mike DeBonis, a congressional reporter with the Washington Post.

Reporters covering the Senate impeachment trial of Donald Trump will face unprecedented restrictions as they seek to provide first-hand coverage of the third such trial in American history, Roll Call reported on Tuesday.

While the restrictions reportedly will be put in place to protect senators, Roll Call notes that the plan "suggests that credentialed reporters and photographers whom senators interact with on a daily basis are considered a threat."

The new restrictions were met with pushback from members of the press who regularly cover Capitol Hill proceedings.

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"These potential restrictions fail to acknowledge what currently works on Capitol Hill, or the way the American public expects to be able to follow a vital news event about their government in the digital age," the Standing Committee of Correspondents, a group representing congressional reporters, wrote in a Tuesday letter to Senate leaders.

Credentialed members of the press, who regularly walk and talk with senators on a daily basis, will be corralled into press pens and not allowed to engage in their normal back-and-forth conversations with lawmakers during the trial. Press will also lose their freedom to roam in the halls of the Senate, and will be escorted to and from the press pen.

In addition, members of the media who wish to watch the trial from the press area in the Senate chamber will have to go through an additional screening process before entering. Electronic devices such as phones and laptops are already prohibited in the chamber, so the additional screening means reporters will have an even more difficult time quickly entering and exiting the chamber to give first-hand reports on the proceedings.

Washington Post reporter Seung Min Kim wrote that she was "floored" by the restrictions. "Excessive restrictions like these only hurt the public who are rightfully seeking up-to-date information on an incredibly historic event such as the third impeachment trial of a U.S. president in history."

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO), chair of the Senate Rules Committee and involved in the discussions about restrictions, dismissed concerns from the press.

"You'll have to decide where’s the best place to watch; it's like watching a football game," Blunt told Roll Call. "Where's the best place to watch it?" Blunt said, implying reporters may be better off following the trial on television or streaming online rather than in person.

The proposed security measures "exceed what occurred during the Clinton trial 20 years ago, with fewer ways for press to speak to senators," Sarah Wire, a Los Angeles Times reporter and chair of the Standing Committee on Correspondents, wrote on social media.

One of the issues centers around the historic handoff of the articles of impeachment from the House of Representatives to the Senate. The security measures prohibit all still photographers from capturing the moment, no audio recordings, and will only allow one video camera to record it, far more restrictive than in 1998.

Roll Call re-published a still photograph from 1998, showing House Republicans delivering the articles of impeachment against President Bill Clinton to the Secretary of the Senate.

"NO STILL PHOTOGRAPHERS allowed to document the transfer of the articles to the Senate?!?!?" Mike DeBonis, a Washington Post congressional reporter, wrote on social media. "I stand with the Standing Committee of Correspondents & scores of colleagues who cover the Capitol daily in condemning this outrageous breach of press freedom."

DeBonis said that for other historic occasions, including annual State of the Union addresses, the press and Capitol Hill security personnel "have been able to balance the equities of lawmakers and media without metal detectors or reporter pens. Completely unclear why this should be any different."

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell expects the Senate trial to begin on Tuesday, Jan. 21. On Wednesday morning, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi named seven impeachment managers who will make the case to senators as to why Trump should be removed from office.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.