For the second time in a little over a year, House Democrats laid out evidence that former President Donald Trump had committed a crime against the Constitution. For hours, senators again sat as the impeachment managers hammered home that Trump had tried to swing the outcome of the presidential election.
But that’s about where the similarities end. The first impeachment trial, which promised to be the trial of the century, failed to deliver. Ironically enough, it’s only after the White House had seen the last of Trump — who, for all of his many, many faults, is a consummate showman — that Democrats managed to put together a riveting, engaging and must-watch tour of his assault on democracy.
That’s thanks to a combination of lessons learned from 2020 and a case that is in itself wildly more visceral. All in all, there are five reasons why this trial is more watchable — and why I’m wondering whether these coming days might change Senate Republicans’ calculus on how to vote on conviction.
First, this time around the Democrats laid out a crystal-clear storyline. I was deep in the weeds of the first impeachment trial, covering it for a daily podcast at the time, and I have to say — it was a muddled and confusing affair. I struggled to condense the complex plot into short sentences that people could easily follow. This time, the arc from Trump’s early claims of election fraud to his speech riling up his supporters down the street from Congress to the sacking of the Capitol unfolded like a horrifying movie plot.
Second, the prosecutors Wednesday had a personal stake in the proceedings, and that carried through in their presentations. That’s no shade to Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., and the other impeachment managers who presented the case in 2020. I thought Schiff’s off-the-cuff speeches at the time were marvels of oration. But they didn’t have the command of the proceedings this week. Reps. Joe Neguse, Joaquin Castro, Ted Lieu, Madeline Dean and Eric Swalwell and Delegate Stacey Plaskett were all brilliant.
And, unlike the relatively dry business of describing a pressure campaign on a foreign president, this time Trump’s crimes are personal for the members of Congress, who were all present during the assault. Each of the prosecutors had a story to tell from that day. A range of emotions — outrage, disbelief, horror and, in some cases, deep sadness — were on full display.
Third, the Democrats had access to more eye-popping video to work with. Instead of relying on a transcript of Trump’s “perfect call” with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, we have video of Trump openly encouraging his supporters to march on the Capitol. All the video taken on Jan. 6 and before, stitched together from various sources, makes for fascinating, harrowing television.
Fourth, in the first day of their arguments, Democrats introduced something that was missing last time: new evidence. Without the ability to call witnesses, House impeachment managers last year had to reshuffle the materials. On Wednesday, prosecutors aired unseen video from Capitol security cameras and audio from Capitol Police dispatch desperately calling for backup.
And fifth, the Ukraine affair lacked a smoking gun. While Trump’s role was implied, there was no clear villain. Was Rudy Giuliani freelancing when he was gallivanting around Ukraine looking for evidence to smear Joe Biden? Was Trump pressuring Zelenskiy or just doing his job as president? This time around, there’s no question, nobody else for Trump to hide behind. He is the perpetrator. He’s the bad guy here.