Like so much in the Trump era, the opening hours of the impeachment trial of the President in the U.S. Senate amounted to grave matters of state and law infused with farce. And like so much else in the Trump era, it was all about television and who boasted and roasted best for the cameras.
At 12:32 p.m. ET on Tuesday, the Senate chaplain opened proceedings with a prayer. Soon, Chief Justice John Roberts donned his robes, banged a gavel and the trial opened. But the solemnity pretty much ended with the prayer.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was busy blathering about the rules for the trial in the context of time restraints, witnesses and evidence. As it happened, these rules would change before the first recess. It was all so slippery and imbued with so much childish conniving that a person was put in mind of high-school council scandals and arguments.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer was soon on his feet, denouncing the media restrictions and warning, despairingly, about a trial taking place “in the dark of night.” Further, he claimed, “the eyes of the nation are upon us.”
Well, almost, but not entirely. There was wall-to-wall coverage on all the major cable-news channels. NBC, ABC and CBS also carried the proceedings live on Tuesday afternoon. Fox – the network, not Fox News – offered Fox affiliates the option of live coverage, anchored by Bill Hemmer.
The Buffalo Fox affiliate clearly declined. As the trial got under way, the Buffalo channel was airing Maury, the talk show featuring Maury Povich needling angry people and a studio audience into agitated argument. Tuesday’s topic was “Am I raising another man’s child?” The ensuing fracas of indignation and accusations wasn’t much different from the shenanigans in the Senate. Which was the intent of the Trump team.
Oddly, the Buffalo affiliate for PBS, WNED, also declined to carry live coverage. Anyone in the Buffalo area or Southern Ontario expecting sober news analysis by the PBS crew was instead offered a marathon of the drollery that is The Durrells in Corfu.
Meanwhile, on most networks, large teams of legal experts talked and talked. They compared the current situation with the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton and some pointed out that the Clinton era, for all the zealotry that was expressed then, was a time of benign bipartisanship compared with today.
What nobody said was that the Clinton impeachment trial had in its makeup a certain lasciviousness and the background figure of Monica Lewinsky. While this impeachment trial has the hovering figure of one Lev Parnas, a man who looks like he was born to have his mug shot taken in middle age.
On ABC’s panel it was reported that Mr. Trump had told his legal team to “flash it up” on Tuesday. And so it came to be, eventually. First Democrat Representative Adam Schiff spoke and made the fair and earnest point that the trial in the Senate is “completely backwards.” Anyone who ever watched a legal drama on TV knows this to be true. Since when does a trial open with the defence making its arguments and setting the rules?
White House counsel Pat Cipollone and Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow took turns adding the “flash.” That is, they were bombastic, accusatory and wildly hyperbolic. Both railed against the process instigated by the Democrats in the entire impeachment narrative, rather than against evidence. Mr. Cipollone, in particular, tried to shout and gesticulate rather than reason with anyone. He slapped the podium with his hand and yelled, “It’s ridiculous!”
A person could already foresee the coming Saturday Night Live sketch mocking it all, but this is what Mr. Trump likes and wants – bombast to give succour to his base. It’s reality TV to these people, not a solemn trial. And on reality TV, bombast doesn’t seem ridiculous. It just demeans the earnestness of the other side.
Time passed and Mr. Schumer was on again, this time demanding documents. By the time the first recess happened, the legal panels and pundits were eager to make conclusions. Chris Wallace on Fox News told a probably disappointed audience that Mr. McConnell had “backed down” and that’s a thing he never does. He’d backed down on time limiting and evidence, now not limiting the trial to two 12-hour days. Instead, it will be three eight-hour days. This was all to appease four Republican senators who were uneasy about the restrictions.
By late afternoon, Mr. Schiff was again arguing that the trial was proceeding “backwards” as if that wasn’t clear earlier. Except he used a rude term meaning the procedure was posterior-backwards. This barely caused a ripple because the repetition and the rude term summed up so much, aptly. The farce of reality TV, “flash” and bombast permeates it all, just as Mr. Trump wants it.