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Video becomes vital part of Democrats’ case against Trump

House impeachment managers are using video of President Trump and other administration officials to bolster their case, turning the camera-welcoming president’s own words against him in the absence of new trial witnesses.

The Democrats making the case against Trump have made media footage an integral part of their Senate trial presentation, displaying past comments from Trump, acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and witnesses who appeared during the House proceedings to support allegations the president withheld aid and a White House meeting from Ukraine in exchange for political investigations into his rivals.

“I would think that if they were honest about it they’d start a major investigation into the Bidens. It’s a very simple answer,” Trump said in a clip from Oct. 3 that was played on the Senate floor multiple times on Wednesday and Thursday.

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The prominence of the video, text messages and emails reflects the realities of the first impeachment in a fully digital age, and it may represent Democrats’ best chance to lay out their case as it becomes increasingly unlikely the GOP-controlled Senate will hear from new witnesses.

“The video clips were a way of getting witnesses in without having gotten the right to have those witnesses actually appear,” said Claire Finkelstein, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. “But what the Democrats really want of course is new witnesses. So it doesn’t fully compensate for the battle over witnesses.”

The Senate voted along party lines earlier this week to table a series of amendments from Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) to subpoena several witnesses and documents for the trial, pushing the question of whether new testimony will be admitted until after opening arguments.

As Democrats seek ways to make the most of their allotted time to present their arguments, they’ve added visual flourishes to their presentation. That has included graphics with text messages and WhatsApp exchanges between key players in the Ukraine scandal and highlighted portions of a transcript of Trump’s July 25 call with the Ukrainian president.

It has also involved an abundance of video footage.

Democrats have teed up clips of Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland saying “everyone was in the loop” and former national security council official Fiona Hill relaying concerns about the foreign policy equivalent of a “drug deal” taking place.

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One of the most notable moments of Wednesday’s proceedings came when House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) sought to undercut the idea that an impeachable offense had to be a criminal act.

Footage from former President Clinton’s impeachment trial appeared on the screen with then-impeachment manager and now-Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) describing high crimes and misdemeanors as when “an important person hurts somebody of low means.”

“It doesn’t even have to be a crime. It’s just when you start using your office and you’re acting in a way that hurts people, you’ve committed a high crime,” Graham says in the clip.

The senator, who has refused to entertain convicting Trump, had left his seat before Nadler rolled the footage.

Video has also allowed Democrats to bring in outside voices as they seek to workaround the potential absence of new witnesses.

As Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) made the case Tuesday that the Trump administration had been open about withholding aid from Ukraine for political purposes, he turned to a large video screen where a clip of Mulvaney started rolling.

“The look back to what happened in 2016 certainly was part of the thing that he was worried about in corruption with that nation,” Mulvaney says in the footage of his October press briefing. “And that is absolutely appropriate.”

Democrats have also made a concerted effort to make Trump’s own public comments a central part of the narrative.

In highlighting the article on abuse of power, Democrats turned to a July 2019 speech in which Trump said Article II of the Constitution gives him “the right to do whatever I want as president.”

When it came time to argue the charge of obstruction of Congress, a Trump clip was at the ready in which the president declared to reporters “we’re fighting all the subpoenas.”

Democrats also played a snippet of Trump’s June 2019 interview with ABC News in which he said he would consider accepting opposition research on his political opponents from a foreign government.

Jay Sekulow, one of Trump’s lead defense attorneys on impeachment, disputed Tuesday that the ABC clip in particular was damaging to their case.

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“They’re making it for emotive purpose. It’s a video that’s been seen before,” Sekulow told reporters. “The fact of the matter is none of that violates any laws or rules or regulations.”

The White House — which did not include any visual aids during its arguments on the rules governing the trial — might also make use of audio or visual aids during its opening statements, set to begin on Saturday, a senior administration official said.

The president’s defense team would be likely to seize on their own clips of Trump offering his defense of withholding aid from Ukraine or of the Ukrainian president saying he did not feel pressure to act.

Trump’s impeachment trial is the first such event in the fully digital age. That has increased the hunt for viral moments that can circulate on social media; for easily digestible clips to win over the public; and for opportunities to seize on years worth of public comments caught on tape from many of the senators in the jury.

“All of these things carry a shelf life beyond the trial,” said Lara Brown, director of George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management and an opinion contributor for The Hill.”They get clipped and then put into tweets and put into fundraising emails. I just think there’s an overall much greater usage and awareness of this idea that a picture says a thousand words.”

The Democrats’ presentation thus far has largely failed to sway Republican senators, though acquittal has always been considered a near-certainty.

But the House managers are also making their case to the American public at the outset of an election year, an effort that could be aided by sharp, easily shareable video clips played over and over on the Senate floor.

“One of the realities in our modern media environment is that every story is pretty much forgotten two days later,” Brown said. “One of the reasons why I think these shorter clips are very, very helpful is that it does that sort of reminding of the message that people need.” 

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