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WASHINGTON — The protester stood outside the world’s greatest deliberative body, as the U.S. Senate is sometimes known, holding a poster with a pair of white boxer briefs attached to it. It was an actual pair of boxers, to be clear.
Mercifully, the boxer briefs were unsoiled.
This is how impeachment ends, on a sunless Friday in January, with underwear foisted to U.S. senators as they pass by in their tinted-window SUVs. The actual proceedings may limp on for a few more days, like a state fair where half the rides have been disassembled but some fairgoers linger over their cotton candy.
Once it was clear, on Thursday evening, that Republicans would resist calls to hear from witnesses, including former national security adviser John Bolton, there was little left to do but hold the final vote. Sure, there would be a little more denunciation, a little recrimination. It wouldn’t be Washington without one final angry speech before the weekend. But the final sprinkling of outrage aside, the impeachment cake was just about baked.
As for the aforementioned boxers, they were an allusion to President Trump’s defense. In keeping with the general spirit of impeachment, the explanation is a little complicated, though at least in this case it does not involve having to find Ukraine on a map.
See if you can follow along.
One of the president’s defense attorneys, retired Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz, had once defended Jeffrey Epstein, the sexual predator who committed suicide in a Manhattan jail cell several months ago. Dershowitz himself has been accused of participating in Epstein’s lurid sexual escapades, many of which allegedly involved underaged girls. He strongly denies the allegation.
Dershowitz, who denied inappropriate behavior with teenagers, admitted to receiving a massage from a “50-year-old Russian woman named Olga,” adding by way of his defense: “I kept my underwear on.” That explanation appeared to be good enough for Trump, who hired him for his impeachment defense team, which is how Dershowitz found himself citing James Madison on the floor of the Senate.
And it is also how we come to the protester, standing outside the Capitol. “The Dershowitz Defense,” her poster read. “I kept my panties on at Epstein’s house ... and you take him seriously?”
The protester, who identified herself as Kathy, said that the underwear had belonged to her grandson, and that he had outgrown them. Kathy, who lives in suburban Virginia, had been protesting for four weeks, she said. Now that was about to end, with the Senate prepared to acquit Trump as early as Friday evening.
Kathy was resigned to this outcome, and dispirited by it. “Our country has to make it end in time for the Super Bowl,” she said bitterly of the game between the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers that is to take place on Sunday evening. “Everything depends on the Super Bowl,” Kathy grumbled.
“That’s what matters now, crap like that.”
In fact, the impeachment inquiry may continue into next week, at which point it could — if Democrats somehow manage to stretch this thing out with parliamentary maneuvers — come into conflict with the first episode of the final season of “Homeland,” the Showtime series about political intrigue that has had the misfortune of having been eclipsed by reality.
Other protesters had written a song about Trump. “Trump, Trump, Trump, the man’s disgusting,” went the song, which the protesters sang for this reporter, though this reporter had not evinced any great enthusiasm for wanting to hear the song. “He’s unqualified and crude, he’s undignified and rude, he will never, ever be my president.”
This went on for eight verses. (Politics aside, the protest singers had decent pitch, at least as far as this reporter’s totally untrained ear is concerned.)
Several hundred yards away, a group of antifascist protesters was holding a rally of its own. Kathy said that the day before, her protest group, which was narrowly concerned with removing Trump from office, had clashed with the other, more radical group, which appeared to want Trump removed in the service of a broader socialist revolution. The argument appeared to end with each group pretending that the other did not exist.
Chief Justice John Roberts strode into the Capitol, flanked by aides or clerks, around noon on Friday. If the proceedings had taken a toll on him, he hid it well behind a facial expression that resembled a smile. The exact nature of that expression was impossible to determine, because Capitol Police cleared the hall as he approached, a courtesy that was apparently reserved for him alone.
The evening before, Roberts had been forced to read a question from Sen. Elizabeth Warren that seemed to call into question his own legitimacy in presiding over impeachment. He treated the matter gamely, with the same reserve that has marked his approach to the impeachment trial.
And there was Warren herself. In her black down winter coat, backpack on her shoulders, she could have been just another tourist marveling at the majesty of the Capitol. Reporters, of course, spotted her immediately, crowding around, iPhones thrust toward her face.
Warren can sometimes blow past reporters, but this time she stopped to entertain questions — and to vent about a process that Democrats see as having been rigged by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to result in a Trump acquittal. She lamented that some senators had forgotten that they owed a “higher loyalty to the Constitution” than to their own party.
“Higher Loyalty,” of course, was the name of former FBI Director James Comey’s book about having been fired by Trump in 2017. Was this a purposeful allusion? Surely not. Except in this Washington of deep state operatives and Russian agents, this Washington of “Homeland” as reality series, one never really knows.
On the subject of Roberts, Warren blamed Republicans for his predicament. “When the Republicans force the chief justice to preside over a sham trial that has no witnesses and no documentary evidence, that makes confidence in our government decline even more,” she told Yahoo News.
Then her communications director said it was time for lunch, and Warren was whisked away up a stairwell reserved for senators. The press scrum broke up, the journalists resuming their hunt for senators to interview.
Politicians have been accused of traveling in ideological herds. Journalists have recently found themselves in literal ones, as their freedom of movement through the Capitol has been severely restrained by a set of heavy-handed new rules. For days, journalists have been hemmed in and boxed out. Lanyards have been checked for the proper press credentials with far more avidity than usual. Snap a picture in the wrong place, and you might get yelled at. Do it again, and you might well be covering impeachment from a Starbucks somewhere on Pennsylvania Avenue.
In the basement of the Capitol, a crowd of reporters stood on the platform where Capitol Hill’s quaint subway system deposited legislators heading from their respective office buildings to the Senate floor. The platform looked like Times Square at rush hour, only without that station’s charming grime or tourists trying to find the Empire State Building. The journalists eagerly watched each train, trying to figure out who among the gray mass was critically important to the future of the republic, or could at least deliver a good quote.
Those who lament that Hollywood and Washington are merging into a nexus of influence and celebrity would not have been cheered by the sight. Emerging from a train, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina found himself surrounded by a smartphone-toting mob of journalists shouting over each other, jostling for space, each determined to get the same fuzzy sound clip that every other journalist was going to get.
Ignoring the chaos pressing in on him from all sides, Scott looked directly at a journalist and answered the question before him patiently and at length, as if he were speaking to an old friend who needed a vexing matter quickly and competently addressed. If there is such a thing as political skill, it was on display right there and then.
Between trains, everyone checked phones, something that can’t be done in the Senate chamber itself. Impeachment has been a kind of antediluvian affair, free of technology, heavy on decorum. There were, however, boxes of candy awaiting journalists in the press gallery, courtesy of some unknown benefactor. And with hours of debate potentially to go before a final vote, these were a welcome relief even for those in the fourth estate who had not yet logged their 10,000 steps.
Shortly after 1 p.m., the Senate impeachment proceedings began one more time, maybe even for the last time. They began, as always, with an invocation from the impeccably bow-tied chaplain Barry Black, a retired rear admiral.
“We always reap what we sow,” Black warned ominously. And have a good weekend while you’re at it.
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