Commentary

Trump Impeachment: Making a Case Against a President, and Against Tuning Out

They played video. They brought graphics. They cited Alexander Hamilton so many times, they may owe royalties to Lin-Manuel Miranda.

The Democratic House impeachment managers, unfolding their case against President Donald J. Trump, were conducting a TV trial without many of the staples of legal drama, particularly witnesses on the stand. Instead, they relied on multimedia, impassioned speeches and repetition, repetition, repetition — all in a presentation of 24 hours over three days.

If the O.J. Simpson trial was a long-running daytime soap, this was democracy in binge mode.

The trial of Mr. Trump, as the TV pundits reminded us before, during and after, was an unusual one, in that much of the jury was assumed to already have a verdict in mind. This meant a different dynamic from the usual televised trial, in which the prosecution is speaking to the jury first and the viewing audience second, if at all.

Instead, Representative Adam B. Schiff of California and his team were effectively speaking to the court of public opinion — home viewers who might bring pressure to bear on certain swing senators, or turn against them at the ballot box — though they had to do so by at least arguing as if the outcome were not a foregone conclusion.

So there was the case, and then there was the case about the case. If the Republican majority was going to acquit the president, and if it was going to voting against calling witnesses and subpoenaing documents that might weaken his defense, the Democrats would make sure that the viewing audience knew it.

Their arguments often focused on what the audience wasn’t seeing and hearing, because the White House refused it. Wednesday night, Mr. Schiff made a refrain of referencing evidence — a diplomatic cable, a statement attributed to the former national security adviser, John R. Bolton — and turning it into a question to the Senate. Wouldn’t you like to read them? Wouldn’t you like to hear them? “They’re yours for the asking,” he said.

What the three days asked of viewers, largely, was patience. The constitutional stakes were as high as they come. But the dynamics were staid, thanks to Senate rules that limited TV coverage to two cemented-in-place camera vantages that gave the broadcast all the visual verve of a security-camera tape.

The managers’ most effective tool, both to break out of the visual monotony and substitute for live witnesses, was file video, which they used to string together the words of Mr. Trump and his staff into a kind of cinéma-vérité documentary of the often right-out-in-the-open scandal.

There was Mr. Trump at a news conference with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia in Helsinki, dismissing his own intelligence agencies’ findings on Russian hacking. There was his personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani, regaling Fox News hosts about his Ukraine exploits. There was Senator John McCain, a frequent critic of Mr. Trump, summoned Friday as a posthumous witness.

Certain greatest hits went into heavy rotation. The acting White House chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, seemed to say “get over it” onscreen as often as his boss said “You’re fired” on “The Apprentice.”

The senators were a captive audience, though some ducked out, unseen by the stationary cameras. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina vanished before managers played a video of him, prosecuting the Clinton impeachment trial in 1999, in which he contradicted arguments he’s made to defend President Trump. (Mr. Graham did make himself available to cameras between sessions, as did the Democratic presidential candidates kept off the trail in Iowa by Senate duty.)

If any senators weren’t keen on their duty, a good chunk of their constituents were willing to volunteer. Eleven million viewers watched the trial’s first day — hardly Super Bowl numbers but more than watched the Clinton trial, though the numbers declined the next day. And the three major broadcast networks aired more of the trial during the daytime than in 1999, though they left the evening portion to cable news.

In a way, the Democrats programmed their presentation the way a cable news channel does. They recycled through their arguments and video clips during the daytime, for a home audience watching snippets here and there.

Then in prime time, they brought out their centerpiece programming, delivered by Mr. Schiff. (This was around where Fox News usually cut away, preferring its own prime-time hosts.) At the end of Friday’s session, he stepped back from the specifics of the abuse-and-obstruction cases to argue “moral courage” and putting country over party.

“Give America a fair trial,” he concluded. “She deserves it.”

The tone wasn’t entirely solemn. On Thursday evening, Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York told a story about a friend who’d just asked him if he’d heard about “the latest outrage.” Mr. Jeffries assumed this referred to Mr. Trump. Actually, his friend said, “Someone voted against Derek Jeter on his Hall of Fame ballot.”

Mr. Jeffries moved on to connect the American pastime of baseball with the American tradition of the Constitution. But his anecdote made another point. The House managers were not just vying with an opposition party and a truculent defender. They were pitted against every other distraction in the mediasphere, every other shiny enticement and new outrage offering a reason to tune out. READ MORE:https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/24/arts/television/trump-impeachment.html