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Videos Offer a ‘Smoking Gun’ on Impeachment. Will It Matter?

By Damien Gosling , in Politics , at February 11, 2021

Democratic impeachment managers are using Trump’s favorite political tool — visual media — against him.

Photo Illustration by The New York Times

The House managers who are pressing the case against former President Donald Trump in the Senate’s impeachment trial know they’ve got their work cut out for them. Even after watching a graphic 13-minute video that depicted the Capitol siege in unflinching detail, 44 of the Senate’s 50 Republican senators voted yesterday (unsuccessfully) to throw out the trial. To achieve a conviction, the managers will need to persuade at least 11 of those 44 to turn against the president.

Today, the House managers continued to put video footage at the center of their presentation, this time including some newly publicized clips taken from Capitol security cameras. In one particularly startling video, a Capitol Police officer, Eugene Goodman, is seen running from the mob and warning Senator Mitt Romney to find shelter.

But more than anything, the impeachment managers are using footage of Trump himself, and his supporters, to allow the defendant to make the case for them. Essentially, they are trying to beat Trump — who has always been a media star more than a politician — at his own game.

It was his use of Twitter, of authoritarian-tinged video content at his rallies, and of public slogans that helped draw the crowd to the Capitol on Jan. 6. Drawing on that, the impeachment managers this afternoon were trying to make the case that Trump’s use of the bully pulpit is what caused the destruction and death that day.

“Trump is a master of the media; he knows how to manipulate visual media,” said Nicole Dahmen, a scholar of visual communication at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication. But now, she said, with Trump kicked off Twitter and out of the spotlight, he has been stripped of his ability to reframe the footage that clearly shows a violent insurrection at the Capitol.

“One of the arguments I’ve been making since the riot on the 6th is that that incident showed the power of visual media,” Dahmen said. “To see those rioters inside of the Capitol, hanging out in the chambers, sitting in the speaker’s chair, the smirks on their faces, brought that to the public in a way that the written word just couldn’t.”

Representative Jamie Raskin, the lead House manager, has not been shy about using media to his advantage in this trial. The visual evidence “will show that Donald Trump surrendered his role as commander in chief and became the inciter in chief of a dangerous insurrection,” Raskin told senators this afternoon. “He told them to fight like hell — and they brought us hell that day.”

These proceedings have a very different feel than Trump’s first impeachment trial, in which the Democratic House managers pressed their case in dry, lawyerly tones, arguing that Trump had abused his power in back-room dealings with Ukraine’s leader. Video was scarce in that trial, and so was persuasion: Romney was the only Republican who voted for impeachment, and Trump was easily acquitted.

This time around, the impeachment managers are leaning into a far more dramatic style. Raskin and his fellow House managers are aiming to sway Republican senators by way of moving public opinion — via the cameras.

“The audience here for the House managers is not just the senators as jurors, but the country as voters,” said Bob Shrum, a longtime Democratic strategist who now runs the Dornsife Center for the Political Future at the University of Southern California. “The hard-core Republicans aren’t moving — the Louisiana Republican Party denounced Senator Cassidy for his vote yesterday — but you’re seeing declines in Republican registration, especially in suburbs.” (Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana was one of the six Republicans who broke with their party and voted yesterday to continue the trial.)

Of course, in an era defined by political polarization — in media coverage, in gerrymandered districts and in extravagantly funded congressional campaigns that are increasingly tied to national-level politics — persuading politicians to go after the leader of their own party seems about as likely as fitting a camel through the eye of a needle.

Shrum has been involved in national politics since before the Watergate scandal, and he remembers the effect that the House’s impeachment proceedings had on Republican lawmakers. That was the first presidential impeachment in history to be shown on national television, and while video footage wasn’t used during those proceedings, audiotapes were. It was the tapes of Richard Nixon discussing Watergate from the White House that ultimately became the famous “smoking gun” that persuaded many members of his own party to turn against him.

This time, Shrum said, it seems as if the smoking gun has been there all along: It was Trump’s public statements, and his use of the media to rile up his supporters. And yet, it doesn’t seem to matter. “The whole thing strikes me as a version of the Red Queen’s jurisprudence in ‘Alice in Wonderland’: first the verdict, and then the trial,” Shrum said.

“We have the ‘smoking gun’ — and a likely acquittal,” he added. “It’s as if Nixon had revealed the tapes, and people had said, ‘That’s all fine.’”

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