The impeachment show on MSNBC and Fox News: Preparing to prosecute, or defend, Trump

Fox News host and Trump confidant Sean Hannity.
(Nicholas Kamm / AFP/Getty Images)

Republicans forecast a grossly unfair “show trial.” Democrats promise a weighty defense of truth and the Constitution. Many Americans who miss hours of witness testimony in the public hearings of the impeachment inquiry of President Trump will rely on cable television to tell them what happened. But in prime time, they should expect something more like the prosecution and the defense.

Tune in to MSNBC’s nighttime sessions and you can expect to see the case against President Trump as an out-of-control menace who threatens American freedoms. Flip to the Fox News Channel’s commentators and you will likely see a fond portrayal of Trump as a bold and truth-telling leader facing a veritable coup by “deep state” holdovers from the Obama administration and Democrats embittered by his 2016 upset of Hillary Clinton.

The public hearings over the next few weeks will focus on allegations that the president used U.S. foreign policy for personal gain. The impeachment inquiry centers largely on a July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as the Trump administration was holding up nearly $400 million in aid that Congress had approved.


In a White House summary of the call, Trump repeatedly asked Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, a potential opponent in the 2020 election, and his son. When Zelensky inquired about purchasing more U.S. weapons, Trump replied, “I would like you to do us a favor, though. ... Whatever you can do, it’s very important that you do it if that’s possible.”

The focus of a House impeachment inquiry is President Trump’s request of Ukraine’s leader, according to a White House memo, to investigate Joe Biden.

Sept. 25, 2019

Commentators on MSNBC have signaled in the days leading up to the hearing that they will focus on the testimony of diplomats and security officials who have already given sworn statements, including that Trump backers such as his personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani pursued a “shadow” foreign policy.

Fox News commentators seem determined to broaden the inquiry — putting on trial everyone from Biden and his son, Hunter, to House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), to the anonymous whistleblower who raised an alarm about the Trump-Zelensky call and whom Trump has suggested is guilty of “treason.”

The bulk of coverage in America’s top newspapers and television networks has focused on the question of whether Trump pressured a U.S. ally for his own political gain. MSNBC has generally followed that line, if with more vehemence.

What are the public impeachment inquiry hearings about? Who’s who? What are the terms you need to understand?

Nov. 12, 2019

“I don’t think Republicans and Democrats are in disagreement over whether the president of the United States ... was muscling the president of Ukraine to give him a political gift that he desired,” Peggy Noonan, a speechwriter for President Reagan, told MSNBC host Ari Melber. But Noonan added that in their “rage and sometimes in their mischief” toward Trump, opponents haven’t always appeared to have “high-minded reasons for protecting the public good.”

Based on coverage over the last week, here’s a look at how the impeachment hearings may look through the lens of the prosecutors at MSNBC and the defenders at Fox News:


Setting the mood

MSNBC: “It’s day one thousand and twenty two of the Trump administration,” MSNBC’s Ali Velshi announced, kicking off a recent hour focused on impeachment. The implication was not subtle: The station’s hosts and viewers feel hostage to a president they can’t tolerate. Velshi went on to describe the soon-to-be-published book “A Warning” by “Anonymous” — previously identified by the New York Times as “a senior official in the Trump administration.” The anchorman said the book described “a cruel, dangerous president and a so-called steady state of administration staffers, struggling to keep the wheels from falling off.”

FOX: Trump confidant Sean Hannity gave over the end of one show last week to a clip from radio host Rush Limbaugh, who proclaimed: “They are trying to overturn a duly constituted, legal election. This is a direct assault on the Constitution. It’s a direct assault on the American voter. … And they’re going to try to destroy the people you vote for, as a means of destroying you and dispiriting you.”

FACTS: The White House called the book “a work of fiction,” as Velshi told viewers. The Constitution allows the House to draw articles of impeachment against U.S. presidents suspected of “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors,” which are not defined. The Senate then holds a trial, with a two-thirds vote required to remove the president.

As public hearings on impeachment near, many Americans haven’t made up their minds, a USC/Los Angeles Times poll finds. They’re generally younger, less partisan and paying less attention.

Nov. 7, 2019

The players

MSNBC: On this side of the cable spectrum, the witnesses appearing Wednesday will be introduced as patriotic heroes, foreign service workers who performed loyally under Democratic and Republican presidents. George Kent, a senior State Department official in charge of Ukraine policy, “has been fighting this fight, for the truth, for the Constitution really, for months, maybe years,” former diplomat Evelyn Farkas told host Lawrence O’Donnell on “The Last Word.”

FOX: Multiple guests suggest that witnesses never heard directly from Trump that he wanted to hold U.S. aid to Ukraine to get dirt on his political opponents. California attorney Harmeet Dhillon told Jeanine Pirro that U.S. Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the White House’s Ukraine expert, was “kind of a clown ... coming in in his uniform and pretending that the gravitas of the Army is behind his outrageous positions here.”

FACTS: Decorated war veteran Vindman and others testified they were alarmed the U.S. might be reversing support of an ally to compel an investigation into Trump’s political foes, or at least the public claim of an investigation by Ukraine. Vindman testified in a closed-door session that he was one of those listening in on the call in which Trump asked Zelensky for the investigation as “a favor” and that he became alarmed because it “had nothing to do with national security.”

Rudolph Giuliani’s efforts to affect U.S. policy in Ukraine worried Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman and White House advisor Fiona Hill, according to transcripts.

Nov. 8, 2019

Bribery? Pressure? Or no problem?

MSNBC: “What we have is an actual crime,” Joyce Vance, a former U.S. attorney under President Obama, told O’Donnell’s audience last week. “The bribery statute makes it illegal for a public official to seek something that is of personal value to them in exchange for being influenced in an official action.” The thing of value would be political dirt against a potential 2020 election rival. The official action would be whether to hold up the military aid Congress had approved to help a key U.S. ally in the fight against Russian aggression.

FOX: Conservative talk show stalwart Mark Levin assured Hannity that the president of Ukraine had not been pressured. Mimicking the foreign leader, Levin said: “If there is a quid pro quo shouldn’t I be involved in it?”

FACTS: It will be up to House members, and perhaps the Senate, to determine whether Trump improperly used his power for personal political gain and whether that would require impeachment or removal. Zelensky said after the July phone call was made public, “There was no pressure or blackmail from the U.S.”

What about the whistleblower?

MSNBC: Host Ari Melber assured his viewers that the unnamed government official who raised concerns about Trump’s actions on Ukraine was doing so “internally and lawfully through proper channels” and that the important thing is not who started the case, but a mountain of corroborating evidence. And the Associated Press’ Jill Colvin told Velshi: “What this White House loves to do is attack the messenger. ... And when they don’t know the name of that person they are not able to effectively do that sort of smear job that they are so used to doing.”

FOX: Fox hosts have savaged Democrats for withholding the name, while also suggesting they knew the identity, without revealing it. “It’s scurrilous. It’s cowardly and it’s not the way it’s supposed to work,” Trump’s onetime acting Atty. Gen. Matt Whitaker told Hannity. “A person in America does have the right to face their accusers, the last I read,” said a seemingly incredulous Hannity.

FACTS: Federal law protects the identity of confidential informants, to encourage individuals to report what they view as unlawful actions. Such reports only launch investigations, which require other evidence to reach a finding of culpability or guilt.

Mulvaney says what?

MSNBC: A phalanx of MSNBC guests discussed Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney’s “infamous” news conference, in which he acknowledged Trump wanted political information in exchange for U.S. support of Ukraine. Mulvaney later tried to walk back his comments. “You don’t go from saying in front of millions of people in the United States ... quid pro quo, arms-for-dirt, and then back away,” former federal prosecutor Gene Ross told Melber.

Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney said President Trump withheld aid in part to get Ukraine to conduct investigations into Democrats. “Get over it,” he said.

Oct. 17, 2019

FACTS: Mulvaney’s statement came after a reporter in the White House pointed out that it would be a quid pro quo for the president to exchange U.S. military aid for a Ukrainian investigation into a Democratic National Committee computer server. Mulvaney replied: “We do that all the time with foreign policy.” Later in the day, Mulvaney said, “There was absolutely no quid pro quo.”

Trump ‘is free to do it!’

FOX: Multiple guests have said complaints against Trump all amount to disagreements with his foreign policy and that Trump only wanted to root out corruption. Levin told Hannity: “If he wants to treat Ukraine in a certain way, he is free to do it!”

FACTS: Republicans and Democrats will present differing takes on whether Trump inappropriately pressured Ukraine to investigate his political foes. And participants on opinion-heavy cable news shows will too. Viewers who are able to watch the witnesses live will have something more — access to the same testimony that members of the House of Representatives will have when they decide if the president should stand trial for his job.