WASHINGTON — America’s first reality-TV president is now starring in the nation’s hottest show: his own made-for-TV impeachment trial.
And, like everything in contemporary Washington, lawmakers of all stripes are blaming all the made-for-TV drama on the other side, even as they jockey for viral moments in the YouTube era.
No real-life witnesses? Democrats have a workaround: Video clips from previous House hearings and cable news interviews. Trump’s media-pro defense team, meanwhile, comes to the floor with a staggering 1,368 combined appearances on Fox News. The four Democratic senators running for president suddenly forced into jury duty? They’re all but leaping in front of the cameras in the Capitol hallways.
New rules are keeping reporters penned outside the Senate chamber, so they can’t easily question senators, even as the TV interview station in the Capitol’s basement has grown so popular that lawmakers are literally lining up for TV hits.
This peculiar Washington spectacle reflects a trial destined to acquit Trump, which both sides will want to spin in their favor as the November election draws near. Spoiler alert: In the end, Trump will argue the trial vindicated him. Democrats will say they proved beyond any reasonable doubt that Trump and GOP lawmakers staged the cover-up of the century.
As both sides scramble to control the media narrative, they dismiss their opponents as mere grifters riffing for the cameras.
One of Trump’s most ferocious allies, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), pointed the finger at Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), who’s leading the Democrats’ case against Trump.
“The whole case that was laid out by Adam Schiff was made for television.”
“The whole case that was laid out by Adam Schiff was made for television,” Meadows told VICE News. “He's been so redundant that it makes a Geico commercial look casual.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) begged to differ, of course — in front of an array of cameras.
“The arguments of the president's lawyers were like a Fox News show: A lot of finger-pointing and nothing to do with the actual facts,” Schumer said.
The key drama in Trump’s trial turns on Democrats’ attempts to convince GOP moderates to call fresh witnesses. For now, they’ve found a fix: Play the tape.
This isn’t business as usual. The Senate passed a special resolution to allow screens on the Senate floor.
Senators watched a clip of Trump calling on both Ukraine and China to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden. They heard Trump, whose lawyers oppose all witnesses, say he’d “love” to see his top aides testify.
They even watched Trump brazenly assert that Article II of the U.S. Constitution means “I have the right to do whatever I want as president.” They heard Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s acting chief of staff, say, “There’s going to be political influence in foreign policy.”
To Democrats, the video is gospel.
Americans “live in a video culture,” Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) told VICE News, and Democrats’ damning impeachment investigation testimony still hasn’t gotten out there as much as they want it too. “Probably a low percentage of Americans...availed themselves of extensive coverage [of] the House impeachment proceeding.”
Schiff & Co. unloaded around 50 video clips Wednesday alone — about three times as many as were shown in 1999 when former President Clinton was impeached. And the most damning clips were aired in primetime, when most Americans are in their living rooms
Those clips have annoyed most Republicans.
“It reminds me of like shopping-channel hits of the ‘80s, and you hear it again and again and again and again,” Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) told VICE News as he rushed to an elevator in the basement of the Capitol. “I can almost recite the testimony, which has been roughly the same.”
Trump’s attorneys haven’t said whether they’ll use digital media in their case, which kicks off Saturday.
That doesn’t mean Republicans haven’t pulled TV-ready stunts.
Trump’s ‘Friends of the Senate’
Outside the Capitol on Wednesday, Meadows and Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.) flanked five GOP attorneys general from states Trump won in 2016 as nine television cameras and a slew of bored journalists covered their second press conference of the day.
The AGs dropped a historic first: a “friend of the Senate” letter.
A “friend of the Senate” letter isn’t a real thing (even if 21 GOP AGs signed it) in any legal sense. But that didn’t matter. Cameras were rolling and social media followers were hungry for red meat.
Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas), a member of Trump’s defense team, insisted to VICE News, while flanked by reporters in the basement of the Capitol, that his crew will use all the tools available to help clear Trump.
An impeachment, he explained, requires both political hardball and showmanship.
“It's part legal. It's part political,” Ratcliffe said. “And it's part theater.”
Cover: Rep. Adam Schiff, President Donald Trump, Sen. Chuck Schumer, and Sen. Mitch McConnell. (Photo illustration by Hunter French)