The trial of a lifetime. A constitutional crisis of historical proportions. A game-changer for American democracy.
President Trump’s impeachment trial — only the third in American history, the second since the advent of television and the first of a first-term president — rolled into the Senate chamber this week with the promise of a made-for-TV spectacle. Drama! Conflict! Burisma Bada Bing!
What landed was more like a local cable co-op hearing, spliced with a jury-duty service instructional video, squeezed through an uninspired PowerPoint presentation.
Thank the government for the low-fi production of this high-stakes trial, which began Tuesday and will roll into next week with a series of all-day sessions featuring arguments for and against Trump’s removal from office.
The artless staging and inert fixed camera angles are a result of the Republican-controlled Senate’s request that no press photography or recording devices be allowed inside the chamber. The filmed record of this extraordinary period in our nation’s history is being documented by what appears to be one fixed camera left behind after Bill Clinton’s impeachment, equipped with a zoom feature and not much else.
Hours stuck in the same frame — Senator X and Trump lawyer Y making their argument in front of a marbleized wall whose cracks and fissures illustrate the glacial pace and weight of the trial — make one yearn for the brilliance of C-SPAN and the Frank Capra-esque masterworks it’s produced in these same chambers.
Presentations by impeachment manager Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) and other Democrats arguing that the president abused his power were augmented by evidentiary documents and bullet-pointed timelines. Video clips of testimony during the House impeachment hearings from key players in Trump’s administration, such as Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and Gordon Sondland, were interspersed throughout the proceedings to back their charges that the president used his office to game the forthcoming election in his favor.
But when the audio slipped out of sync, as it did quite often, it evoked the dubbed hilarity of a midcentury Godzilla movie, and their meticulously planned attack was upstaged by memories of another monstrous battle, but involving Rodan.
Political pundits lamented the setup, arguing that Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) banked on a boring telecast to dissuade voters from watching the hearing. “They don’t want the public to see this,” said MSNBC analyst Michael Steele. “They don’t want us to assess for ourselves.”
The unintended result, however, was impeachment in the raw, a somber endeavor uncluttered by the flashy graphics and curated direction of news outlets tasked with entertaining their audiences. Reports of celebrities in the public seating area were just that, reports. Alyssa Milano was off camera. The American political process, as messed up as it is today, was center stage and unadorned. Sans the bells and whistles, it was and is a study in paying attention when everything tells you not to, of staying attuned to a laborious process that’s designed to make us look the other way.
Call it a January miracle, but the first day of the trial drew an audience of more than 11 million television viewers, according to ratings data compiled by Nielsen. And that’s not accounting for those who live-streamed it on internet platforms. They’ll have plenty more to watch in the coming days. Each side is allotted 24 hours in all for opening arguments, and Trump’s legal team will likely begin its defense this weekend. Senators will then have the opportunity to pose written questions through Chief Justice John Roberts, who is presiding over the trial.
The state-controlled broadcast has been a great media equalizer. All news outlets and platforms have the same feed, no matter their political leaning, balance of punditry versus facts, or annual revenue numbers. The only differences were the network ID icons on the side of the screen and colorful backing graphics that struggled to make the dry affair look sexy.
Imagine if political campaigns were run this way — if the candidates were only allowed the one setting to appeal to pollsters. If Bloomberg didn’t own it, and Fox couldn’t spin it. Congratulations, President Yang.
CNN and the New York Times sent sketch artists into the trial, who came back with illustrations of senators falling asleep in their chairs, or vacating their seats like Lindsey Graham for the excitement of the cloak room.
On Wednesday, as Schiff finished up his roughly three-hour presentation, perhaps two dozen Republicans were out of their seats at once. It’s a violation of the rules for senators to leave their seats during the trial, which may be another reason they wanted to control the narrative. Sens. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) reportedly loitered by the door while Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) was spotted sneaking chocolate from under his desk. If we’re honest, we all needed a sugar boost at that point.
The no-frills production had even the jurors tuning out, which probably wasn’t an anticipated detail in McConnell’s suppress-the-checks-and-balances playbook. Trump is on trial, but so is the disappearing American attention span. Stay alert, because the last thing we need is a sequel of “Distraction vs. Democracy.”