In the days since the news broke that President Donald Trump made a request/demand that Ukrainian prosecutors investigate Joe Biden’s son, the president’s allies have blanketed cable news with allegations against the former vice president. A New York Times reporter reminded MSNBC viewers that “there’s a story here” about Joe Biden and his son, and Trump himself accused the Bidens of corruption on Monday.
To say Democrats are losing the ability to control this story would be an understatement. The allegations led to Biden to angrily jamming his finger in a reporter’s face when asked about his son over the weekend, in an attempt to place the focus back where it belonged.
We’ve argued in the past that there’s a simple reason to begin impeachment proceedings: A televised trial of President Trump and his extensive misdeeds seems like one of the few ways Democrats could seize control of the news cycle from a president who is unusually skilled at dominating it.
Watching the Ukraine scandal unfold is yet another reminder of this. Democrats rightfully fume that the media chases down ridiculous Trump claims and tweets, thus framing news cycles as he wishes. But, after three years of tweeting “But her emails” memes, they have to know that the landscape isn’t changing.
Media, for the most part, want drama, intrigue, and outlandishness. In Trump, they have a president who doesn’t hesitate to give it to them. Democrats, meanwhile, act as if such displays are beneath them, and cede the stage to Trump. It is time for Democrats to accept the game that is being played and put on the ultimate display of drama and intrigue — impeachment.
This wouldn’t merely be a mirror image of Trumpian infotainment, of course. The substance of an impeachment process would involve a detailed public investigation into extensive wrongdoing by a sitting president and his enablers — something absolutely core to a functioning democracy. This kind of oversight was baked into our system for a reason, and our elected representatives have an obligation to do it.
The process could kick off with the excellent suggestion by former GOP Rep. David Jolly that Speaker Nancy Pelosi request time for a national address, to lay out the case against Trump, and define what impeachment is (a House hearing to consider filing charges against a president) and isn’t (a vote to remove a president).
In short order, the House would debate and vote on referring an article or articles to a House committee, possibly over the course of two to three days, consuming the media, again.
Then come the hearings. In what could be called a test run of impeachment hearings, the House Judiciary Committee brought Trump’s former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski in for a hearing last week. While members’ questions delivered mixed results, at best, questioning performed by Democratic Counsel Barry Berke was a master class in flaying a witness.
A greater use of counsel for questioning could bring about the kind of courtroom dramatics that we know make for deeply watchable news. This kind of drama could last weeks and, if done right, command gavel-to-gavel coverage and post-hearing news analysis on a nightly basis. Think the OJ trial, but with politics.
On a parallel track, House Democrats could and should continue their efforts to enforce subpoenas for all materials relevant to both the Ukraine scandal and all materials and Grand Jury testimony related to the Mueller Report. Victories in court over Trump, in the midst of impeachment hearings against him, would provide even more drama for news media to cover.
In all of this, even Donald Trump would struggle to redefine the narrative. The simple onslaught of news from the impeachment hearings, courtrooms, and nationally televised addresses, would flood the zone. Trump could do a national address of his own, but such a speech would only underscore that Democrats are getting to him.
But time is running out. Once 2020’s election calendar starts in earnest, and the Democratic primaries begin, Democratic presidential candidates will be creating dramatics of their own. After that, it becomes simply too late to hold effective impeachment hearings.
If Democrats are to meaningfully uphold the Constitution and address Trump’s lawlessness, they must act now, and they must once and for all wrestle away his incredibly firm grip of the news cycle — to an extent that is bigger and bolder than Trump could ever dream of.
Eric Schmeltzer is a former press secretary to Rep. Jerry Nadler. Gur Tsabar is a social issues strategist at the Ketchum Communications Consultancy, and was a senior communications adviser to former New York City Council Speaker Gifford Miller.