Lights, camera, impeachment: TV phase of inquiry carries pluses and pitfalls

Tom McCarthy in New York
Photograph: Joshua Roberts/Reuters

The opening phase of the impeachment inquiry against Donald Trump has required investigators to methodically depose witnesses behind the closed doors of a secure facility in the Capitol basement.

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The game changes entirely on Wednesday, when the inquiry will move into a more familiar arena for Trump: television.

The change of venue offers opportunities to make the case against Trump literally hit home for American voters. But Democratic strategists are concerned about the hazards of public televised hearings which are expected to last about two weeks, until the Thanksgiving break.

The top concern is that Trump’s Republican defenders will succeed in creating a spectacle that makes voters write off impeachment as just another Washington soap opera.

Democrats want people to tune in. Republicans want people to turn off.

Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, said Democrats face structural challenges in making their case in televised hearings.

“The same platform they will use to present and investigate information, Republicans will use to confuse, attack, smear and to attack the Democrats,” Zelizer said in an email.

Who is assigned with pushing back on the Republican arguments? It has to be very incredibly scripted

Dan Pfeiffer

“Hearings are limited in time, so there is a zero-sum nature to how this unfolds. Equally difficult, after different parts of the hearings are over, the information will be refracted through the partisan media lens, which will impact how Americans make sense of what happened.”

Certain factors could work to Democrats’ advantage. The witnesses themselves, who so far include three career civil servants and potentially an active-duty army officer expected to appear in uniform, could at a glance communicate a seriousness of purpose.

The format of the hearings could also provide for a substantive exploration of the allegations against Trump, in contrast with the usual partisan ping-pong in which the two sides alternate five-minute blocks of time and members strain to generate clips for YouTube.

Under special rules, the impeachment hearings will begin with up to 45 minutes of uninterrupted questioning by each side, with allowances for questioning by lawyers on committee staff in addition to members. In transcripts of closed-door hearings, one such staff member, Daniel Goldman, director of investigations for Democrats on the intelligence committee, comes across as particularly effective.

Related: 'We need to hear the evidence': swing voters give their view on Trump

Analyzing the Democratic strategy on the Pod Save America podcast, the former Barack Obama adviser Dan Pfeiffer said that to avoid derailment, committee members needed to go in with a clear plan.

“It needs to be scripted like a television show,” Pfeiffer said. “Not just in the various episodes, as in what order the witnesses are called – but how do we script the episodes themselves? What is each member taking on? What order are they taking it on? Who is assigned with pushing back on the Republican arguments? It has to be very incredibly scripted.”

Republicans are working from a different script. Their strategy will be not to try to challenge the mountain of evidence but to defend Trump’s state of mind in a July phone call he had with the Ukrainian president and argue that Trump’s actions are not impeachable, according to a strategy memo obtained by Axios.

On Saturday the top GOP member of the intelligence committee, Devin Nunes, released a list of witnesses the minority wishes to call. The list included Hunter Biden, the son of the former vice-president; the anonymous whistleblower whose complaint launched the impeachment inquiry; and a former contractor for a company that during the 2016 campaign paid for research focusing on Trump’s activities in Russia.

“Your failure to fulfil Minority witness requests shall constitute evidence of your denial of fundamental fairness and due process,” Nunes wrote to the committee chairman, Adam Schiff.

Schiff replied that the identity of the whistleblower would be protected and that the committee would consider the other witness requests.

With cable networks including Fox News planning to carry the impeachment hearings live, Trump himself seems likely to tune in. He may well tweet, but his participation is otherwise expected to be limited.

Lawyers for the president are not permitted at the intelligence committee hearings but would be able to appear if the process moves to the next stage, the drafting of articles of impeachment before a full House vote.

Richard Nixon leaves the White House on 9 August 1974, after resigning as president. Photograph: Chick Harrity/AP

Public support for the impeachment inquiry has slackened a bit to 48% in the three weeks since it crested at 50%, according to FiveThirtyEight’s tracker. But support for the impeachment of Richard Nixon climbed quickly, Pew Research has noted, after the process landed on television and many Americans encountered the case against the president for the first time.

Related: Watergate to Ukraine: how TV will dictate Trump's impeachment fate

Corey Brettschneider, author of The Oath and the Office: A Guide to the Constitution for Future Presidents and a professor of constitutional law at Brown University, said public support for Trump’s impeachment has materialized much more quickly than it did for Nixon.

“Here, I think public opinion is moving even more swiftly to suggest that the inquiry is warranted,” Brettschneider said. “The more public opinion moves here, as was the case with Nixon, that’s when I think we’re going to start to see these Republican defections that everybody’s waiting for.”

In conversation with Pfeiffer on Pod Save America, former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau said polling indicating most people have made up their minds about Trump means Democrats shouldn’t get their hopes too high.

“The ability to persuade, I think, is fairly limited,” he said, “and that should both give the Democrats hope that there’s not going to be some backlash, but also temper our hopes that there’s going to be some huge swing towards us because of impeachment. This very well could be a wash in the end.”