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February 14, 2021

A multimedia impeachment trial: Video takes center stage

 
February 14, 2021

NEW YORK: After unexpected video appearances by Madonna and Johnny Depp, all that seems missing from former President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial is someone trying out a new dance routine.

Trump’s lawyers fully embraced a TikTok defense on Friday, using manipulated video to complain about manipulated video and relying on rapid-fire, repetitive imagery. The approach seemed the ultimate end of a proceeding where the use of media by both sides to make their arguments — sometimes chaotically, sometimes effectively — took center stage. It was very 2021. Or, perhaps, 2011. The Trump team’s presentations owed an obvious debt to the creative use of video from the heyday of “The Daily Show” and other late-night comedies. They were seemingly created by someone who searched for phrases such as “fight like hell” and “throw a punch” and spliced together all the examples they could find, mostly from Democratic politicians.

The intent was to blunt the impact of Trump’s words leading up to the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol, suggesting that they were little more than regular political rhetoric and that Democrats were hypocrites because they use the same language. The risk, however, is that taking words out of context, and seemingly stringing them together for comic effect, distracted from the points they were trying to make.

“It called attention to the fact that their whole argument was a sleight of hand in the first place,” said Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. Madonna and Depp made brief appearances in clips in which they bashed Trump.

“It’s sort of a ‘Papa Don’t Impeach’ defense,” quipped CNN’s Jim Acosta.

“It was a Sean Hannity mixed tape,” said CNN’s Jake Tapper. “I thought it was ludicrous,” said Fox News Channel’s Chris Wallace. MSNBC’s Brian Williams couldn’t resist “fight club” references.

Still, it was an approach designed to appeal to modern media consumers, those who would quickly click away from droning speeches and legislative points of order. Video presented by the House managers earlier in the week was a vital part of their case, starting with a sobering, 13-minute clip with violence and explicit language that made the actions of the mob of Trump supporters chillingly personal.