By Sarah Emily Baum
As lawmakers and journalists flocked to the Senate chambers on Tuesday morning (January 22), protesters and activists gathered on the National Mall. They unfurled a banner in front of the Capitol Building; in the gallery, they stood in silent defiance of President Donald Trump’s alleged misconduct. Elementary school students stood in Senate office buildings with their textbooks in hand, alongside senior citizens, several of whom were in wheelchairs. Capitol Police officers surrounded the demonstrators, while right-wing antagonists tried to get a rise out of everyone on the scene.
Those first few hours — contentious, long, and full of dissent — set the scene for the first official day of President Trump’s impeachment trial, during which a jury of United States Senators decide whether or not to convict the president on two counts of high crimes and misdemeanors — namely, Abuse of Power and Obstruction of Congress. In December, the House voted in favor of impeaching him, butt that didn’t remove him from office. It is now the Senate’s job to determine if Trump should be removed from office for violating the Constitution when he orchestrated his infamous phone call with Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky and subsequently held up military aid to the nation before allegedly standing in the way of Congress’s investigation of that phone call.
But some senators, who serve as the jury on this trial, weren’t exactly keen for the three-day trial process to begin.
“I do not welcome it. I regret it,” Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) told MTV News Tuesday morning, pointing to the November election as a cause for her reticence. “It seems to me the people should make the judgement, but here we are.” As one CNN poll found, 51 percent of respondents believed the president should be removed from office. And an impeachment during an election year isn’t without precedent: President Andrew Johnson was impeached in 1868 (he was ultimately acquitted by the Senate on 11 charges).
Seven Democratic members of the House of Representatives, led by Congressman Adam Schiff (D-CA), are serving as impeachment managers responsible for driving the case for Trump’s removal. Their argument: He violated the Constitution when he pressured the President of Ukraine to investigate former Vice President and potential presidential rival Joe Biden, and his son, Hunter Biden, and then coerced staffers to ignore congressional subpoenas during the House investigation. Conversely, the White House Counsel, the team in charge of defending the president that includes lawyers Alan Dershowitz and Ken Starr, is arguing that the impeachment inquiry is “constitutionally invalid,” on the grounds that Trump’s dealings with President Zelensky were within his jurisdiction of executive power.
House impeachment managers, who are spearheading Trump’s opposition, are faced with an uphill battle: They must convince 67 of the 100 senators from across the country to convict, and therefore remove, the president from office. Any fewer than a supermajority and he’ll be acquitted.
Although the articles of impeachment were delivered to the Senate on January 15, the action didn’t start until 1 p.m. on Tuesday. That’s when lawmakers gathered in the Senate chambers to establish the rules of the trial to come. They debated how long the trial will last, if witnesses will be permitted, and if new evidence will be admissible, as well as more tedious rules such as the foods allowed on the Senate floor, a moratorium on electronics and photographs, and a mandate on senators’ attendance. And while Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) stepped out mid-hearing for a Fox News interview, and others snuck in Apple Watches, the 100 lawmakers are expected to brave the 12-hour hearings in silence, away from outside influences such as the president’s constant stream of tweets about the ordeal.
Meanwhile, protesters outside Capitol Hill got creative as they made themselves heard. Some drummed pots and pans with metal spoons to draw a crowd. Others, such as Connor Atwood, a college student from California, braved the harsh D.C. cold to lead political chants. The 21-year-old told MTV News he was protesting because he feels the Trump administration is “moving in the direction of installing an open dictatorship.”
“You see them concentrating power in the executive branch,” he said. “They're running a rough shot over Congress. [It’s] all obstruction.”
As a young activist with Refuse Fascism’s #OutNow movement, Atwood said he put his studies on hold for a semester to travel the country and mobilize youth to oust the president. “The evidence is very clear and overwhelming,” he said. “The masses of people actually have a role to play in this by coming into the streets.”
Derek Torstenson, a 22-year-old from Fairfax, Virgina, also protested on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, urging senators to take action against President Trump. “The president is corrupt and he's hiding a lot of stuff from us,” he said. “If [young people] come out and use their voice[s], that will help.”
Washington, D.C., is no stranger to protests, but few presidents have incited them the way Trump has: On January 21, 2017, the day after his inauguration, millions of people gathered in the capital for the Women’s March on Washington — and thousands more reconvened on Saturday (January 18) for the fourth annual event. They have marched for stricter gun-control laws, Black and Indigenous peoples’ rights, and to urge lawmakers to take action against the climate crisis. They rallied against the Trump administration’s xenophobic travel ban that targeted Muslim-majority countries and the appointment of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
Now, they are rallying in hopes of an end to an administration has caused further strife to already marginalized people, and Trump isn’t the only lawmaker protesters are putting on notice this week — plenty of senators are being watched, too. Lydia Valentine, a 17-year-old from Gorham, Maine, is paying especially close attention to what Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) does during the trial. Collins has a reputation for being a “moderate” Republican; she is one of about eight lawmakers whom political analysts believe might break party lines during the trial. The group also includes Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Doug Jones (D-AL), Martha McSally (R-AZ), and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK).
“We always talk about how ‘I want to live through great events in history,’ and now we are and we’re panicking,” Lydia told MTV News. “I think the role of young people is to stay angry. Even if it doesn't go the way we want, stay angry so it doesn't happen again.”
As it has in the past, that anger is inspiring action. After Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) introduced rules for impeachment that many Democrats deemed unfair, Hillary Clinton and other people urged constituents to call their lawmakers and voice support for a just trial. And it appeared to have worked — after receiving pressure from Collins, Murkowski, and others in a closed-door lunch before the trail, McConnell revised his resolution, the New York Times reported. He extended the debate from two days to three and automatically admitted the House of Representatives records into evidence, two provisions that were not originally part of the resolution. While every Senate vote matters in a supermajority, many people are paying particular attention to these more moderate so-called “swing-vote senators,” some of whom are up for re-election this November.
Ethan Somers, a 19-year old from Evergreen, Colorado, is closely watching his senator, Cory Gardner (R-CO), who has also been tapped as a potential “swing-vote senator,” even though Somers is quick to point out that Gardner’s voting record is almost always in lock-step with Trump.
“Up until now [Gardner has] been in support of the president it seems, and he’s ignored constituent calls to advocate for a fair trial,” Somers, a senior at George Washington University, told MTV News. Such avoidance tactics didn’t necessarily surprise the activist: According to the New York Times, Gardner hasn’t held a town hall meeting with his constituents in over two years, and Somers says he and other activists once had to literally chase the senator down the street to elicit any sort of response on issues like gun violence prevention.
That hasn’t stopped young people from making their opinions known, including those who are too young to vote.
“Even they are represented by him and deserve to have their voices heard,” Somers added. “Gardner really needs to listen to constituents rather than making them chase him down the street.” MTV News reached out to Senator Gardner's team for comment; a spokesperson pointed to a statement the Senator tweeted Tuesday regarding the impeachment trial process, but did not provide comment on his alleged avoidance of his constituents.
And as youth activists call their lawmakers and take to the streets, so will veteran activists who took a stand during President Clinton’s impeachment in 1998 and also remember the tenuous lead-up to President Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974. That includes Colleen Boland, a retired senior master sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, who sees her activism as just another way of fighting for her country.
“We've called our senators, we've written, we've screamed, we've organized, and nothing has worked,” Sgt. Boland, an organizer with Remove Trump, told MTV News. “We need to turn what we know and our experience over to the youth.”
They’re ready to take the charge. “There's been no movement for social change in this country without young people,” Atwood said. It remains to be seen whether senators will listen.
This story has been updated to note Sen. Gardner's response for comment.