It was good, gripping TV, dramatic at times, with occasional comic levity and some distinctive, memorable characters. That’s what Democrats wanted from the first day of the televised impeachment hearings.
What they didn’t get was a big bombshell “gotcha” revelation. But that could be coming. This was a slyly arranged first day and had “stay tuned” written all over it. Also, you automatically wonder who will play these memorable characters on Saturday Night Live in the weeks to come. It was that lip-smacking.
For a start, in entertainment value, there is the almost comic-book petulance in what Fox News puts on the screen. CNN and MSNBC simply identify Representative Adam Schiff, the House intelligence committee chairman, as such. Fox News adds to its screen a number of boxes with talking points that might be taken straight from the White House. On-screen, Fox News says, “House GOP has supported censuring Schiff for actions during inquiry.” Also, “On 9/26 Schiff publicly exaggerated substance of Trump-Zelensky call.” It would be hilariously spiteful spin if it weren’t so obviously partisan.
As for how Fox News treated the two first witnesses – Bill Taylor, the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, and George Kent, the State Department deputy assistant secretary – an on-screen box appeared next to Mr. Taylor informing viewers of this: “President Trump dismissed Taylor as a ‘never Trumper.’” Another box declared, “White House called Taylor’s closed-door testimony ‘triple hearsay.’” All of this while Mr. Taylor was outlining his long service in the military and government. You got the feeling Fox News wants you to know the President thinks this guy’s crooked.
At the first recess, when pundits blathered, Fox News took the collective view that Donald Trump might have withheld designated aid to Ukraine, but he delivered it eventually – and before a deadline. CNN took the view that the aid was delivered within 48 hours of the White House getting wind of a whistle-blower talking about Mr. Trump leaning in on Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden and his son.
The one bombshell, such as it was, emerged from Mr. Taylor. He said that in the last few days he’d been made aware that a member of his team had witnessed a call between U.S. Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland and Mr. Trump, and heard Mr. Trump ask Mr. Sondland about “the investigations.”
Further, “following the call with President Trump, the member of my staff asked Ambassador Sondland what President Trump thought about Ukraine. Ambassador Sondland responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden, which [the President’s attorney, Rudy] Giuliani was pressing for.”
As any TV viewer knows from watching legal dramas, that’s hearsay. And as Republicans questioned the two diplomats, that is what they insisted: hearsay. Fox News took the same view, naturally. Dear heavens, moving to impeach a President based on hearsay is the work of numbskulls.
Thing is, Republican questioning of the witnesses, when it came, veered into the bizarre, rather than legally condemning. Republican counsel Steve Castor, all twitching and jerking movement, appears to have modelled his style on Saul Goodman, the sketchy lawyer on Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. His tactic is to obfuscate wildly by mentioning a wide variety of names from the past decade of Ukrainian politics and insinuating that Mr. Trump was wary of Ukraine because “Trump was concerned that Ukraine was out to get him.”
The two diplomats, who seemed to come from central casting (Mr. Kent looks like he should be introducing Masterpiece Theatre on PBS on Sunday nights) gave him the studied, puzzled look of people used to dealing with obfuscating twerps.
Republican Representative Jim Jordan, a suit-jacket denier who always wears only shirt and tie, models himself on the football coach in a Hollywood movie who has a few minutes in the locker room to rage and fume at the players.
His voice rising, he deplored the entire investigation, aimed scorn at the witnesses and ranted about the whistle-blower. He lamented, with theatrical despair, that Congress will never get a chance to question the one “who started it all” – to which Democrat Peter Welch replied, “I’d be glad to have the person who started it all to come in and testify. President Trump is welcome to take a seat right there.” And brought the house down. Well not “the House” in U.S. political terms, but anybody watching on TV.
Did the Democrats lay a finger on Mr. Trump in the matter of shaking down Ukraine for the favour of investigating the Bidens? Almost. They’re getting there. Stay tuned. And bring on the Saturday Night Live version.