"I’m Pumped Up": Media Ready for Start of Impeachment Television

Bill Taylor -the top U.S. diplomat to Ukraine - Getty - H 2019
Alex Wong/Getty Images

"It's very watchable because it's very understandable," MSNBC host Ari Melber says of the first public impeachment hearings Wednesday.

On Wednesday morning, exactly 50 days after Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi announced the launch of a formal impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump's conduct, the first two witnesses will take the congressional stand and speak to an audience of millions of Americans.

Kicking off "impeachment television" will be Bill Taylor, the Trump administration's top diplomat in Ukraine, and George Kent, deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs. On Friday morning, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch will have her turn in front of the House Intelligence Committee.

"As a journalist, I'm pumped up," says MSNBC host Ari Melber. "I've been waking up before my alarm clocks these days. I think it's fascinating and important."

The hearings won't be the first made-for-TV moments of the Trump presidency, considering the intense interest in the congressional testimony of Christine Blasey Ford (September 2018), Michael Cohen (February 2019), and Robert Mueller (July 2019). 

"These public hearings certainly have the highest stakes for both sides," says Melber. "There have been other important hearings. Now the stakes are obviously higher because everyone understands that he's closer to being impeached than he ever has been."

"The important thing for our folks is to stay focused on the substance and to constantly re-evaluate the evidence based on the testimony and to report out the story as it evolves," says CBS News Washington bureau chief Chris Isham. "I think that's what our folks do, and they do it well."

Both Taylor and Kent are expected to adhere fairly closely to the sworn testimony they provided privately to House impeachment investigators, some of which was fairly explosive considering that both are currently part of the Trump administration.

"We're looking at a series of essentially government bureaucrats who are not intrinsically given to dramatic renderings," Isham says. "So, I think it will depend on just how compelling the story is and the degree to which the witnesses are able to bring to life the allegations that have been made about the president."

In the run-up to Wednesday's hearings, comparisons have been drawn to the impeachment hearing of President Bill Clinton in 1998 and the Watergate hearings of 1973, both of which captivated the public and drew audiences of many millions.

David Shuster covered the Clinton hearings for Fox News before leaving for an eight-year run at MSNBC.

"With the Clinton impeachment hearings, there was like a nine-month buildup of getting to know the cast of characters," he says. "There were a lot of gaps to be filled in. Now, you still have some interesting characters, but these are largely people who have been on the public radar for two to three months, so a lot of these figures are new."

The outcome of the Trump impeachment hearings, which could lead to formal articles of impeachment, is also more predictable, he says: "You couldn't say that in 1998. It was hard to sort of project how it was going to turn out."

But, as Isham points out, Trump will be the first president to face impeachment hearings during his first term, adding an additional historical wrinkle.

"The fact that we're going into an election year gives it a layer of urgency that did not exist in the previous impeachment cases," he says.

House Democrats have not sketched out how long the hearings will last. Were the House to pass articles of impeachment, the next step would be a trial in the Senate, another political drama that would be bigger than anything a Hollywood showrunner could draw up.

"This story has allegations that sound like an international Watergate," Melber says. "It's very watchable because it's very understandable."