The big Senate coronavirus hearing Tuesday could not have been a better metaphor for America’s self-isolated, stuck at home and increasingly scruffy state, two months into lockdown.
At the same hour, encapsulating the bizarre reality in Washington in 2020, the Supreme Court held the most important constitutional hearing in years with Justices dialing in on the phone to hear arguments over President Donald Trump’s bid to keep his financial records secret.
Like the court’s proceeding, the business of the committee was deeply consequential as it investigated the administration’s handling of a crisis that has killed more than 80,000 Americans and infected more than a million.
About the only normal thing was the politics. Democrats on the committee sought to turn the heat up on Trump, who went on a Twitter tear before his top health adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci turned on his webcam. Republicans generally sought to offer the White House some cover for its missteps.
Some lawmakers beamed into the hearing from their homes, showing off their decor in a rare spate of senatorial transparency.
Others were in a mostly empty Capitol Hill hearing room, bottles of hand sanitizer at their elbows, around a table covered in black cloth. When they were not speaking, most senators in the room wore masks giving the hearing an apocalyptic air.
The star witnesses, top public health officials, some of whom were under various forms of quarantine after visits to the mini Covid-19 hotspot at the White House also testified remotely.
Fauci, hair immaculately combed, in a suit and tie, checked in from his home office, every inch the scientist, with papers on his desk and books piled on the floor. He’s already got the Presidential Medal of Freedom, so maybe a grateful nation can gift him a bookshelf for his service when this is all over.
Fauci in his frank, no-nonsense tone, put himself at odds with Trump on several issues, notably warning the many states ignoring government opening guidelines that by going too fast “There is a real risk that you will trigger an outbreak that you may not be able to control.” But Fauci has not been a Washington power player for decades for nothing, and he mostly managed to walk a political tightrope throughout the hearing.
Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander — who is also self-isolating — gaveled in from his cabin in Tennessee, with wooden beams and a stone fireplace boosting his outdoorsman credentials. Now and then, Alexander’s dog Rufus, who snoozed his way through a “Meet the Press” interview at the weekend, could be heard barking. As grandpas do, Alexander sometimes got too close to his webcam.
Had everyone been packed into the same Senate hearing room, in front of journalists, staffers and a public gallery, Tuesday’s confrontations would likely have been far more contentious.
The reality of social distancing and dodgy Internet connections seemed to draw the sting out of some exchanges in the crucial hearing. But there was a sharp confrontation between Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Fauci, in a moment of one-upmanship between physicians.
Paul warned Fauci he shouldn’t be the “end-all” of decision making on when to open up the economy and said schools needed to come back in the fall.
Fauci remonstrated with Paul, saying that he only gave advice on public health issues, telling the senator, in a grizzled beard after his own bout with Covid-19, “I have never made myself out to the the end-all and the only voice of this.”
Fauci’s colleague Dr. Robert Redfield also testified from home, in front of a full bookcase holding what looked like family snaps. Now and again, possibly due to connection issues, he appeared to go out of focus — offering a metaphor for critics of the Trump’s administration’s performance during the pandemic.
Another top health official Food and Drugs Commissioner Stephen Hahn is under full quarantine. He seemed to have tinkered with his backdrop to preserve his privacy — though almost looked to be shimmering in a backlit ethereal glow.
Back on Capitol Hill, Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine was loaded for bear, wearing a red bandana that recalled the cowboys of the Wild West. Kaine elbow bumped with his neighbor Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina — also sporting a pandemic beard.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders won the award for street cred, showing off a webcam backdrop of merchandise featuring the Red Hot Chili Peppers and New Power Generation, Prince’s backing band. Sanders wasn’t the only former presidential candidate on show. His former liberal rival Elizabeth Warren webcammed in from home as well.
You can take the man out of Bain Capital but you can’t keep Bain Capital out of the man: Mitt Romney seemed to be in a family room surrounded by pictures of his well-known sons – but he was still all business in a crisp white shirt and blue tie.
Romney also crossed his old foe Trump again — after voting for a single article of impeachment earlier this year — asking a question that effectively absolved his 2012 election opponent President Barack Obama from any responsibility in failing to develop a vaccine for the coronavirus. He also punctured Trump’s claim on Monday that the US was better at testing than South Korea.
The hearing coincided with oral arguments in Supreme Court cases over Trump’s attempts to prevent the handover of his financial records to Democrats in the House and New York prosecutors.
Chief Justice John Roberts, it turns out, is a stickler for time – cutting off lawyers on both sides of the cases being argued when the time allocated to each of his colleagues on the virtual bench had elapsed.
The coincidence of hearing so critical to the scope of presidential power and a Senate panel on the worst domestic crisis since World War II would normally have meant a blockbuster Washington day.
But the remote nature of the two events didn’t quite seem to add up to their combined significance and in the end served mostly to emphasize the dislocation in America at this strange time.
South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott put it best back in the hearing room: “Unquestionably we find ourselves in a situation that we wish we were not.”