When the House Intelligence Committee launches its first public hearing of the impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump on Wednesday, it’s likely that the first hours might matter more than anything else.
Throughout the day, the hearings will draw across-the-board coverage on broadcast networks, streaming platforms and cable news channels, not to mention the river of comments and clips that will proliferate on Twitter and Facebook.
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Given the social media quick reaction to recent hearings featuring Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s former campaign manager, and Special Counsel Robert Mueller, initial impressions make a big difference.
When Lewandowski testified in September, pundits quickly focused on the extent of his pugnacity and defiance. When Mueller testified in July, much of the initial attention was on his points of shakiness. It didn’t seem to matter that there were moments of revelatory substance further along in the hearings; Trump and his supporters seized on style to claim that the hearings were victories for them.
But beyond the snap conclusions of the punditry is the fact that many viewers likely won’t have time during the workday to devote hours to watching the testimony of the first two witnesses: William Taylor, the top diplomat in Ukraine, and George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state and the State Department’s lead career official focused on that country. That’s a reason why journalist Bill Moyers wants PBS to rerun the testimony in primetime, as they did the Watergate hearings nearly half a century ago.
The first hour of the hearings are “really important. It is like the first paragraph of a story of what comes after ‘once upon a time’ in a book. The first few scenes of a movie,” says Martin Kaplan, professor at USC Annenberg and director of the Norman Lear Center. “We have short attention spans, so if the first moments are frittered away, that is a problem.”
Democrats are doing things differently this time around, as they try to frame succinctly the story that Trump sought a Ukrainian investigation of Joe Biden and his son, Hunter. The format outlined by the committee’s chairman, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), will start with opening statements from him and from the ranking member, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA).
The witnesses then will be able to deliver opening statements, but then they will be questioned in 45-minute blocks of time from each side. Moreover, each side can choose their respective counsels to do the questioning.
That is a break from a typical hearing, in which members questioned witnesses in five-minute increments, alternating between Democrats and Republicans based on seniority. That still will happen — but it will only come later in the hearing.
Democrats believe that the different approach will produce a much more coherent narrative to make their case about Trump’s conduct and less of the circus atmosphere of a hearing that bounces back and forth between the parties.
More important than anything will be how the star witnesses come across on TV. That has produced some unpredictable moments. Back in 1987, Oliver North admitted that he misled Congress about a scheme to divert proceeds from arms sales to Iran to Contra rebels in Nicaragua. But dressed in his military uniform, North characterized his actions as his patriotic duty. He became a media star — particularly on the right.
Unlike the Iran-Contra committee back then, however, the House Intelligence committee already has a good idea of what Taylor and Kent will say, as does the public. They already testified for marathon hours behind closed doors, and those transcripts have been released. Taylor, who was the former ambassador to Ukraine, has extensive experience navigating D.C.’s political minefields. In a past extended interview, which ran on public television’s This Is America & the World, he came across not as a squeamish bureaucrat but as straightforward and confident. Watch it here.
“He brings gravitas, and we know what his opening statement was behind closed doors,” Kaplan said. “Ideally, [his public committee statement] won’t be simply a reading of that but something that catches it up to where the story is in the news.”
Kaplan said that the members of the committee also will face the challenge of holding the audience as they try to make an impression on their constituents back home. “There’s a premium on grabbing us and holding us right at the top,” he said.
According to Axios, Republicans are planning to focus on what they consider faults in the impeachment process but also on the fact that Ukraine launched no investigation of Joe Biden and his son and that aid to the country was released.
Tim Naftali, clinical associate professor of public service at New York University and a presidential historian for CNN, said he’s looking “to see how a mosaic of a Trumpian way of foreign policy that is unusually corrupt emerges from the hearings. I will also be watching to see how the president’s loyalists work to deface or deny this mosaic.”
Naftali, who is the former director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, sees differences from Watergate.
“The president’s principal defense is not Nixon’s,” he said. “‘I didn’t do it’ but ‘who cares?’ But will that start to change?”
We’ll see. Trump certainly might live tweet portions of the hearings, but he’s also planning a split-screen moment. On Wednesday afternoon, he will have a press conference with Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.