Trump Impeachment: A Quill-and-Ink Process Enters the Digital Age

Viewed from one angle, the first day of the Senate trial of President Donald J. Trump was a plain affair. Or I should say, viewed from two angles — the two provided by the official congressional cameras, one trained tight on the speakers’ stand, one providing a static wide shot.

This was by design: The Senate refused a request for independent press cameras that would be free to capture observing, note-taking or snoozing legislators. Anyone dreaming of GIF-able senatorial reaction shots, à la the nominees at the Academy Awards, would be disappointed.

No one has ever accused Mitch McConnell of excessive visual flair, and the legal drama that he is now executive producing isn’t likely to change that.

Still, the Senate trial of a sitting president, accused of pressuring a foreign country to smear his political opponent, is a stunning TV sight, however basic the camerawork. And there was something striking about the still ritual, in a heated media age, of a hundred senators arrayed in front of the chief justice of the United States, being called by name and answering yes or no to vote after procedural vote.

Day 1 of the trial was, in a way, like time travel. Maybe not all the way back to the quill-and-ink origins of the Constitution, but at least to 1999, when the Senate last tried a chief executive, with similarly constrained visuals. As if to complete the retro experience, lawmakers were required to surrender their smartphones before entering (though several Apple Watches made it past the ban).

It was the most low-tech ritual of governance: just advocates and jurors in a room, speaking and listening. Or at least it was if you assume that the “impeachment trial” is limited to what is being said, done and voted on upon the Senate floor.

But really, the trial is a political process as much as a legal one, aimed not just at a hundred senators but their millions of constituents, both base and swing voters. It takes place not just in that chamber but in TV news studios and social-media feeds. And it began well before Tuesday.

Certainly that seemed to be the thinking of President Trump, the inveterate TV-watcher who reportedly cast members of his defense team because he thought they were good on camera.

One of his handpicked congressional advocates, Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio — your ears may still be ringing from his defense of the President in the Housemade the rounds on Fox News Tuesday. (In the Senate chamber, Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer Jay Sekulow also seemed aware of the high decibel level that his ever-watching client prefers.)

Meanwhile, Alan Dershowitz of O.J. Simpson defense fame, whose months of cable-jabber Trump defenses were like an informal audition for the White House legal team, put in an early-hours media blitz. On CNN Monday, he defended to Anderson Cooper his flip-flop since he argued, during the Bill Clinton impeachment case, that an actual crime is not required to impeach a president. “I wasn’t wrong,” Mr. Dershowitz said. “I’m just far more correct now.”

It was no “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit,” but it was a start.

The Democratic House impeachment managers likewise tried to expand the field of argument, in part by interlacing their speeches with video clips of witnesses from the House hearings in the fall. Besides breaking up the visual monotony during a marathon telecast, these served as a sort of “Previously on …” recap for the home and Senate audiences.

But also, while they laid out an argument for calling new witnesses like the former national security adviser John Bolton, the Democrats used video as a way to summon virtual testimony.

They called President Trump and his acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, in news-file clips. (“Let’s go to the videotape,” Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York said.) They even introduced Lev Parnas, the businessman who worked with the president’s lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani on his Ukraine pressure campaign, via his interview with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow. The next best thing to a subpoena is a TV remote.

Even though Tuesday’s arguments were mostly procedural, the biggest change — Mr. McConnell’s concession against cramming arguments into two 12-hour days — was essentially a TV-scheduling decision. It meant that viewers would not be fed the trial as a massive binge, and that controversial votes would more likely be taken while viewers are still awake.

In the news studios, analysts read the shift as a sign that the Senate might just call new witnesses after all, which created a buzz of excitement in the coverage.

What was mostly missing, so far, was a sense of awe and history, that the legislative branch was even considering the removal, however politically unlikely, of the president of the United States for abusing his office to sway an election.

Maybe that feeling will strike with the beginning of the actual trial arguments — assuming all the networks stick around. By late afternoon Tuesday, CBS had moved on to other pressing legal matters: A woman was battling her ex-husband for repayment of a loan on “Judge Judy.”

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