Critic's Notebook: Trump and the Off-the-Rails Tragicomedy of Impeachment TV

Joseph Maguire - Getty - H 2019

From the cable news and talk shows to Joseph Maguire's congressional testimony, the impeachment saga is a can't-look-away small-screen trainwreck.

If there's one thing the last two days have proved, it's that impeachment doesn't bring out the best in people.

The stark political divide has been on even more ample display than usual since Nancy Pelosi announced the start of a formal impeachment inquiry and the White House subsequently released a summary of the phone call between Trump and the Ukrainian president. Actually, it's not so much politics that seems bifurcated as reality itself. Depending on which political talk show you were watching, the phone call was a "nothing burger" and "a huge pile of nothing" or "flagrantly corrupt" and a "Mafia-like showdown." It was either a "smoking gun" or "there was no smoking gun." A "wild abuse of power" or "a bizarre, flimsy scandal that the rest of us can barely understand." There was definitely "an implied quid pro quo" or "there was no quid pro quo."

The fun began Tuesday night courtesy of, you guessed it, Rudy Giuliani. The ever-entertaining Trump attack dog showed up on Laura Ingraham's show, somehow appearing even more deranged than usual. "This stinks!" America's former mayor shouted. "It's disgusting!" he screamed. He ranted about George Soros. He accused China of attempting to buy the vice-presidency, which is just ridiculous because everyone knows it's the president who's for sale.

He also appeared on a panel, which is never a good idea because Giuliani really doesn't know how to play well with others. "Shut up, moron! You don't even know what you're talking about, idiot!" he yelled at guest Christopher Hahn. Giuliani will surely be appearing before Congress soon, and anyone watching will be forgiven for thinking they've accidentally tuned into American Horror Story.

This was all just a warm-up for the following night, when Sean Hannity delivered a measured, thoughtful response to the news of Trump having asked a foreign leader to dig up dirt on a political opponent. (Just kidding.) "Psychotic hysteria!" Hannity raged. "They want their power back so bad!" he complained about Democrats. "The biggest liar in Congress," he said about Adam Schiff. Just in case you had the sound turned off (a very reasonable option), giant graphics blared "BLIND RAGE," "POLITICAL STUNT" and "FAKE MORAL OUTRAGE." 

"I gotta be honest, I'm worried about the future of this country," Hannity said sorrowfully, finally saying something we could all agree on. He displayed an uncharacteristic sympathy for Joe Biden, who according to him is the victim of a conspiracy among Democrats who prefer a more progressive candidate. "Joe, they're about to throw you overboard!" he warned, trying not to sound too gleeful.

Hannity's guests included Trump's lawyer Jay Sekulow, who was dutifully making the talk show rounds. Sekulow must be the hardest-working presidential attorney in history, since his client literally can't get through a day without getting into legal trouble. His main talking point was that the impeachment proceedings are merely "political theater," and he's not entirely wrong. But as political theater goes, it's damn compelling.

Hannity's other guests were a virtual rogues' gallery, including former Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker (remember him?), who has presumably gone back to his former job of promoting custom toilets for well-endowed men. Alan Dershowitz, referring to the infamous phone call, commented, "I don't see a crime," which isn't surprising because he couldn't see crimes when it came to O.J. Simpson or Claus von Bulow either.

Jeanine Pirro delivered a tirade about the Democrats "tearing down America," but even she seemed bored by the familiar argument. Strangest of all was Sebastian Gorka, whose main line of attack against the press was that CNN's Jim Acosta is "ashamed of his Hispanic, Cuban heritage" because he changed his name.

Hannity also showed a montage of vintage clips of such Democrats as Nancy Pelosi, Jerry Nadler and Chuck Schumer decrying the use of impeachment against Bill Clinton in 1998. The same exact footage also showed up on Tucker Carlson Tonight and Fox & Friends, among other shows. You have to hand it to Fox News; they know how to organize their talking points.

Speaking of Carlson, he seemed to be broadcasting from another universe. Speaking about the "bizarre Ukraine story," he announced, "It seems to be over already." (Good to know that we can all move on.) He read excerpts from the phone call summary, making his feelings known by delivering certain portions in sarcastic, exaggerated fashion. "Read it for yourself, don't trust us," he finally urged viewers, which may have been the only truthful thing he said the whole show.

One of Carlson's guests was that distinguished legal analyst Joe diGenova. The previous night, diGenova had made waves by calling fellow Fox News contributor Andrew Napolitano "a fool" for suggesting that Trump had committed a crime. In turn, news anchor Shepard Smith called diGenova's attack "repugnant." (Don't you hate it when Fox contributors squabble? They all seem so nice.)

"Why aren't people willing to admit that their passions are guiding their news coverage?" Carlson asked, followed by everyone watching at home doing a collective spit take.

As you might imagine, the hosts at MSNBC had a slightly different take on current events. Chris Hayes and Rachel Maddow both made it sound as if the end of Trump's presidency was imminent. You'd think they would have learned by now that he has way more than nine lives. But unlike their Fox counterparts, they at least had distinguished guests, including actual senators, congresspeople, and, you know, real journalists. Maddow was particularly interesting, doing a deep dive into the differences between Elliot Richardson, the attorney general during Watergate, and Trump's consigliere William Barr, who, as she put it, "is up to his neck in this thing."

Over at CNN, Anderson Cooper likened Giuliani's trips to Ukraine with Tom Hagen's visit to the Hollywood producer in The Godfather. Cooper meant it disparagingly, but it was hard not to think that Giuliani was swelling with pride. Former CIA director Leon Panetta, who's also held almost every other job in government, commented, "I have never seen another president do what this president has done." But Rick Santorum, who can always be counted on to be wrong, countered that he saw nothing amiss about what Trump had said, saying that he even reread the transcript because "I thought I missed something." (Yes, Rick you did.)

Brian Kilmeade was equally dismissive on Fox & Friends the following morning. He described the exchange between Trump and the Ukrainian president as "a typical Donald Trump conversation," apparently failing to see that was exactly the problem. The show's guests included the Trump-defending congressional tag team Jim Jordan and Mark Meadows, who kept referring to "the so-called whistleblower" as if adding "so-called" suddenly made that person illegitimate. Although to be fair, there have been plenty of people who've referred to Trump as that "so-called president."

The circus continued Thursday morning, with the congressional testimony of Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire. Maguire is a former Navy Seal, but you wouldn't know it from his deer-in-the-headlights demeanor during the questioning. "I believe that this matter is unprecedented," Maguire said. (Well, duh.) He explained that his delay in sending the whistleblower report to Congress was because he didn't know if the phone conversation in question fell under the aegis of executive privilege. It's a reasonable argument, except that the complaint was specifically about the chief executive. It's like a detective saying that he couldn't investigate a tip about an unsolved murder until he checked with the suspect to make sure it was okay.

"I lead the intelligence community; we know how to keep a secret," Maguire said, unconvincingly. All in all, it was a thoroughly dispiriting performance, giving the impression that the only part of his job title that he lives up to is "Acting."

Sad to say, but it's only going to get worse from here. If you thought the first 747 days of Trump's presidency was a bumpy ride, you ain't seen nothing yet.