The President Bursts Through the Virtual Courtroom Doors

The President Bursts Through the Virtual Courtroom Doors


After Wednesday’s opening impeachment hearings, there were complaints, in some pundit analysis, that the sober testimony of two U.S. diplomats was insufficiently whiz-bang. One write-up from NBC News, seeming to channel a talent scout from the 1930s, said the hearings lacked “pizazz.”

Obviously, you will find the word “pizazz” nowhere in the impeachment section of the U.S. Constitution. More to the point, an audience can be drawn in by a slow-burn narrative as well as by shocking twists.

That said: Did Friday have enough pizazz for you?

If Wednesday, in the serial impeachment narrative, was a carefully expository documentary, Friday’s testimony from Marie L. Yovanovitch, the former American ambassador to Ukraine, was a little bit “Homeland,” a little bit “Sopranos,” a little bit “Law & Order.” It had stories of international danger and violence, government backbiting, threats — and, at least virtually, a surprise (and perhaps ill-advised) guest appearance by President Trump.

Ms. Yovanovitch’s prepared testimony essentially picked up on the big-picture Wednesday story line and zoomed in to ground level, describing the hazards of foreign-service work, the real costs of corruption in Ukraine and her creeping realization that elements in her own government were working to smear and undermine her.

There was nothing academic and theoretical about her account. The stakes were concrete and physical. She described being recalled home over concerns for her “security,” and learning that she was fired while attending a ceremony for a Ukrainian activist who was assassinated in an acid attack.

And she described the palpable feeling of hearing that her own president had told Ukraine’s president that she would be “going through some things.” Someone who watched her read the remark, she said, told her “the color drained from my face.”

Then — like a furious defendant jumping out of his seat to scream at the witness on a courtroom drama — Mr. Trump himself joined the episode, via Twitter.

Representative Adam Schiff was in the middle of asking Ms. Yovanovitch about a report that the State Department had refused to make a statement supporting her, for fear of being undercut by a Trump tweet. Now new evidence had flown to him on little bird wings. Like a live-show director resetting on the fly, Mr. Schiff seized on the tweets as Exhibit A of what “going through some things” looks like.

“As we sit here testifying, the president is attacking you on Twitter,” he said. Ms. Yovanovitch grimaced and seemed to tense up and take a second to compose herself. Mr. Schiff asked what effect the attack might have on other potential witnesses. “It’s very intimidating,” she said.

It was a remarkable fourth-wall-breaking moment, the smartphone screen crashing into the TV screen. We watched a real-time meta-confrontation between a diplomat and her former boss, the most powerful man in the world, who has the enhanced ability to make people go through some things with a few angry taps of his thumbs.

And it was one more example of the reality-TV president’s compulsion to both surveil his TV coverage and inject himself into it — his insistence on being the show’s star, producer and agitated binge-watcher.

On Wednesday, it seemed that one of the chief attack lines of the White House and its defenders would be to dismiss the impeachment proceedings as not just invalid but “boring” — nothing to see here, folks, why not check out what’s on HGTV?

Whether or not Mr. Trump ever believed that, his longtime celebrity’s instinct to create drama wherever he goes betrayed him just two days into the hearings. If tedium is his ally, pizazz is his addiction. (And this isn’t even counting the post-credits scene involving the conviction of Roger Stone, after the House committee broke for a recess, which occasioned another round of rage-tweets.)

The reviews were not kind, even on Mr. Trump’s TV home away from home, Fox News. “The president was not advised by counsel in deciding to do this tweet,” said Kenneth Starr, who prosecuted the impeachment case against Bill Clinton. “Extraordinarily poor judgment.”

The subject of this impeachment inquiry seems instead to be following the legal counsel of that legendary pizazz lover, Billy Flynn of the musical “Chicago”: “Give ‘em an act with lots of flash in it/And the reaction will be passionate.”

Whether that passion helps or hurts Mr. Trump, he’s going to have a hard time staying out of the spotlight.





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