The House’s impeachment inquiry has given new importance to what is a part of the culture at the Capitol — the media stakeout.
As lawmakers meet behind closed doors in a House Intelligence Committee hearing room, a handful of reporters are waiting just outside the restricted space, anxious for any information on what is being said. C-SPAN has started a regular feed on its website of this stakeout spot, located two floors down a spiral staircase in the underground Capitol Visitor Center.
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Many of the images on cable news channels lately have been of reporters catching lawmakers in fleeting moments for comment, or even just a glimpse of an entering or exiting witness. But the relentless pace of the news cycle, with its ever-expanding scope of bombshells related to President Donald Trump, has placed new competitive pressure on journalists to break new details and gather reaction.
“I would say that this is definitely one of the hardest assignments that I’ve had,” said Manu Raju, CNN’s senior congressional correspondent. “The stakes are so high in this story. If Trump gets impeached, this will only be the third time in history that this has happened.”
He added that it’s been an environment where “there is so much interest in what is happening, where every element is so critical, and every thing that a member says is important to the story.”
Nancy Cordes, chief congressional correspondent for CBS News, said that “it is an interesting challenge, and the developments are coming so fast and furious that we often find that by 5 PM, we are dramatically altering the piece right up until the moment” it goes on air for CBS Evening News.
That sudden change in direction is what happened on Thursday.
In the morning, the story from the Capitol looked to be the closed-door testimony of Gordon Sondland, the U.S. Ambassador to the European Union. Then Mick Mulvaney gave a press conference at the White House in which he seemingly admitted that there was a quid pro quo to U.S. aid to Ukraine, only to walk it back several hours later. “We had to make sure we got reaction from lawmakers to that pronouncement,” Cordes said.
Stakeouts have been a routine part of reporting on Capitol Hill, but they seemed to increase once Trump took office, Cordes said, as his wild tweets and statements demanded reaction from lawmakers.
Just about six months into Trump’s tenure, some Senate Republicans apparently were so tired of being hounded for comment that they at one point sought to restrict reporters from doing on-camera interviews in Capitol hallways. The media outcry was so great that the new limitations didn’t even last a day.
Given the intense interest in the impeachment inquiry, media outlets arranged for a pool camera to be placed just outside the House Intelligence restricted area.
C-SPAN decided to carry the feed in part because “this is the only real visibility that we get into the proceedings on camera at this point,” said Ben O’Connell, C-SPAN’s managing editor.
Most often, the feed carries the image of an empty microphone with a bank of elevators as a backdrop, but O’Connell said that “almost anytime” they have captured figures like House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) or Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), ranking member of the House Oversight Committee, “somebody says something of interest.”
From a logistical standpoint, a challenge for reporters has been that the House Intelligence hearing room — referred to as a “skiff,” or Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility — has multiple entrances and exits.
“We have a team of people covering the different areas, but the real challenge of that room is that it is designed to sneak people in without being seen,” Raju said. “There are multiple places that they can go that are far apart from each other.”
There is not only the stakeout in that below-ground space, but two floors up the spiral stairs to another bank of elevators where lawmakers come and go. Cordes said that it can feel “like a cat and mouse game just to catch a glimpse” of who is arriving or leaving, as she is often pressed to make a judgment call on whether to stay put at one spot or go to another.
Some details of the hearings have leaked, and some witnesses, like Sondland, have released their opening statements. But on the record and on camera, lawmakers are limited in what they can reveal. Witnesses have been unwilling to step before the microphone and say much of anything at all.
That has created some occasional moments of friction.
Before he entered the Capitol, Sondland was spotted by an NBC News crew. Correspondent Geoff Bennett approached him, but was stopped by Sondland’s attorney, who tried to push him out of the way.
“As a respected attorney, I am sure you understand how the free press works,” Bennett said.
The attorney backed away, and Bennett got a short comment.
Schiff has pulled back on his accessibility, Raju noted, stopping to make short statements at the microphone or just answer a brief question or two. “That shows the stakes here. It shows how one slip up can really change the direction of the investigation,” Raju said. After Fiona Hill, who was Trump’s top Russia adviser, testified on Monday, Raju posted video of Schiff getting into a black SUV but refusing to answer questions.
The other challenge is the waiting game. The Sondland testimony lasted 10 hours — ending at around 8 p.m. on Thursday. For the whole day about a half-dozen reporters were staked out at the spiral staircase with their laptops and iPhones, peering up at moments to make sure no one slipped by. As Raju said, “If you doze off, there’s always the chance that you will miss someone leaving.”
The original source of the Ukraine story, the person who triggered the impeachment investigation, is the whistleblower, and it’s still unclear if that figure will appear before the committee, if at all. Of great concern to the whistleblower’s attorneys is that his or her identity will somehow be revealed, not to mention the challenge of getting past the Capitol’s media stakeouts.
Reporters aren’t expecting it to stay this way for long.
“I think we are going to have a couple of more weeks like this, where Democrats bring as many witnesses as possible,” Cordes said. “Then things will sort of radically shift, and they will move to the opposite. They will move to blockbuster hearings as they try to build their case that the president committed impeachable offenses.”