The Media Today

Balancing procedure and politics in coverage of Trump’s impeachment

February 15, 2021

Last week, as former President Trump’s second Senate impeachment trial opened and progressed into oral arguments for the prosecution and the defense, Greg Sargent, a columnist at the Washington Post, took aim at two emerging media narratives framing the choice facing Republican senators. Major outlets, he argued, characterized the choice as a test of “loyalty” to Trump, when in fact, senators were being asked to stay loyal to their oaths of office. In doing so, Sargent wrote separately, many of the same outlets wrote of Democrats’ “struggles” to persuade “skeptical Republicans” to ditch Trump—even though “there’s zero reason to assume the vast majority of GOP senators are open to persuasion at all.” 

The twin critiques highlighted a central flaw in impeachment coverage: namely, the failure to properly balance the legal and political elements of the process. Assessed together, the narratives spotted by Sargent constitute a paradox, of sorts: the Trump-loyalty narrative was wrong because it focused too much on party politics and not enough on the constitution, whereas the Democratic-persuasion narrative was wrong because it focused too much on legal process—the time-honored idea that the burden of proof rests with the prosecution—and not enough on the party-political biases of the jury. This isn’t really a paradox at all; both law and politics have their place here. Too often, coverage of both of Trump’s impeachments got those places mixed up, with a helping hand from Republicans eager to muddy the procedural waters.

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This tension was on display on Friday and Saturday, as the trial rushed toward its conclusion, then stopped rushing toward its conclusion, then actually did conclude. On Friday, a CNN team led by Jamie Gangel reported that with the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol already underway, Trump told Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader, “Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are”—a shocking new detail that stemmed from a secondhand account given by Jaime Herrera Beutler, a House Republican from Washington State who voted to impeach Trump, and offered further sharp proof that the former president condoned the attack. The story fueled a late-night debate, among the Democratic impeachment managers, as to whether they should call Herrera Beutler as a witness, a move that would have extended the trial, possibly significantly; on Saturday morning, the managers did move to call Herrera Beutler, and the Senate approved the request, only for the managers to drop it after working out a compromise that saw her testimony entered into the trial record. Reporters characterized this as an epic climbdown. “I’m still in shock,” Politico’s Rachael Bade tweeted. “Democrats FINALLY HAD THEIR MOMENT to take a shot at Trump. Call in witnesses. Show the world what he did on Jan 6 beyond what we know. And they chose not to.” Various liberal commentators howled in anger. Others downplayed the supposed screw-up, characterizing the reaction as another example of the procedure v. politics misunderstanding. “What reporters seem not to understand is that the American people will hear all this on the news,” the Post’s Jennifer Rubin argued. Herrera Beutler “is going to be on TV plenty.”

In the absence of witnesses, the trial moved to a vote; seven Republican senators joined all fifty Democrats in declaring Trump guilty, but that was an insufficient number to secure a conviction. Banner headlines splashed that Trump had been “acquitted, again.” After the vote, the Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell—who defied prior, credulous media reports that he might vote to convict by doing the opposite—read a floor speech in which he excoriated Trump’s conduct, but characterized the trial as constitutionally impermissible since Trump already left office. Reporters and pundits were quick to point out the hypocrisy of McConnell’s politics, pointing out that beside his vote to acquit, it was he who delayed the trial past inauguration day. As the Post’s Philip Bump put it in an appropriately scathing news-analysis piece, “McConnell would have happily considered finding Trump guilty, were it not for Mitch McConnell.” 

Still, however, procedure continued to attract ample media attention. In a push notification, the Post wrote that “Democrats folded on pursuing more votes, while Republicans leaned on a technicality”—a “both sides” formulation whose second part utterly negated its first. Questions about witnesses dominated a press conference with the impeachment managers, to their obvious annoyance. “We got the essence of what we wanted,” one of them, Stacey Plaskett, told reporters, referring to Herrera Beutler’s statement for the record. “I think that what you’re doing is making a lot out of [the witness decision] and dismissing the incredible evidence of havoc, mayhem, and what this president had done over a period of months to bring destruction to our democracy.” Yesterday morning, Plaskett faced fire from CNN’s Jake Tapper, who told her, “I do think more witnesses might have made the case more compelling.” Plaskett cut him off by asking if he really thought witnesses would have changed Republican minds; Tapper said he didn’t know. A similar line of questioning was ubiquitous across the Sunday shows. “If the stakes were as high as you’re saying, why not hear from these witnesses?” Margaret Brennan asked Joe Neguse, another impeachment manager, on CBS; “If this was so serious and so terrible, why did Democrats back off on calling witnesses?” Chris Wallace asked the Democratic senator Amy Klobuchar, on Fox. (No Republican who voted to acquit appeared on any of these shows, save for the South Carolina senator and professional weathervane Lindsey Graham, who went on Fox and predicted the future impeachment of Vice President Kamala Harris.)

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The Democrats’ posture on witnesses was clearly newsworthy, and the debate as to whether witnesses ought to have been called is interesting enough. But Plaskett was basically correct: by lavishing disproportionate attention on a procedural thread, news organizations risked diminishing the clear and obvious evidence of Trump’s guilt that we all saw with our own eyes, and crediting Republican senators with a good-faith approach that, as Sargent wrote last week, most of them clearly eschewed. We know that Trump’s actions before and on January 6 were serious and terrible without the need for “ifs.” When Trump was first impeached, in 2019, the simple, incontrovertible facts of his misconduct, which initially rang clearly through coverage, got obscured, as the process dragged on, by reporters’ indulgence of bad-faith legalistic posturing and insatiable appetite for, and privileging of, new information; as I wrote at the time, journalists “seem to have internalized the idea that egregious wrongdoing can only be found in envelopes smuggled between gloved hands in parking garages.” This time, we seem to have made a similar mistake—to a lesser degree, perhaps, but amid even higher stakes.

This is not to say that reporters shouldn’t continue to uncover new details of what happened on January 6—they should be, and are, working hard to do so. The historical record must be as rich as possible. It’s to say that the historical record doesn’t start and end with impeachment, which, for all its legal trappings, is a political process aimed at political accountability. McConnell was right when he asserted that Trump can still be tried in actual court, even if he deserves no credit for passing the buck; Trump’s trial in the court of public opinion, meanwhile, should be cut and dried. So should that of his enablers. When it came to this impeachment, the jury was itself in the dock, if not formally so. The impeachment managers’ decision on witnesses was not necessarily the right one. But when the story of the trial is told, they do not deserve equal focus.

Below, more on impeachment and the insurrection:

  • The truth will out?: Margaret Sullivan, media columnist at the Post, reflects on impeachment manager Jamie Raskin’s assertion that the trial was “a moment of truth for America.” The Trump era’s “pervasive culture of lying” made it “politically untenable for so many Republican senators, in the end, to vote their underdeveloped consciences,” Sullivan writes. And yet “I’m hopeful enough to think that the sheer amount of truth that was hammered home over the days of the trial will matter,” she adds. “Maybe, even though the truth didn’t prevail, some of it managed to see the light of day. Enough, perhaps, to give America’s democracy some ground to stand on.”
  • Advance warning: Last week, the fact-checking site Snopes reported that it reached out repeatedly to Facebook about QAnon activity and violent rhetoric in a private pro-Trump group around the time of the election, but never got a substantive reply from the platform. Reporting in the Times has since linked a man named Keith Lee to both the insurrection and the prior blockading of a Biden campaign bus in Texas—an event, Snopes notes, that was coordinated in the group that it flagged to Facebook.
  • Breaking news: For the Times Magazine, Jason Zengerle explores how the Trump era “broke” the Sunday shows, whose impulse toward balance has made them unwitting conduits for right-wing disinformation. In January, Chuck Todd, of Meet the Press, asked Ron Johnson, a Republican senator who brought up bogus claims about voting, why he wasn’t also investigating 9/11 and the moon landings. “It was a good line, and Todd seemed pleased with himself,” Zengerle writes. “It did not occur to Todd, however, that the same question could be asked of him. If Meet the Press is going to have guests like Johnson, why doesn’t it host 9/11 truthers and moon-landing conspiracists as well?”
  • An important reminder: CNN’s Donie O’Sullivan, whose reporting on the insurrection went viral in his native Ireland, opened up to the Irish Times about his experiences of depression and anxiety. “The chaos that I have had in the past in my mind is far more terrifying than anything I have encountered, even at the riot that day at the Capitol,” he said. “I just thought it was important for me, while I have my fifteen minutes of fame at home—and before it ends—to say, one, I have gone through this and, two, I am still going through this. I am terrified of it still and I don’t want it to come back.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.