Public impeachment hearings of President Trump will begin this week, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) tweeted Wednesday. The House Intelligence Committee will interview three officials close to the situation of the problematic phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky. In similar investigations, public opinion renders a powerful influence on how history will record the investigation.
According to Representative Adam B. Schiff, who serves as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, the Committee’s first public impeachment hearings will begin Wednesday and include testimony from Ambassador William B. Taylor, Jr., the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine; and Deputy Assistant Secretary George P. Kent, of the U.S. Department of State. On Friday, they will speak with the former U.S. ambassador to the Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, who was suddenly ousted from the ambassadorship in May.
According to The Washington Post, the proceedings will air live on basic cable channels ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS. Also, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and CSPAN will also carry live coverage of the proceedings. Although this won’t be the first televised presidential investigation—both the Watergate investigation and the impeachment of former President Bill Clinton were on the air, as well—the Trump public impeachment hearings come with a twist: social media. This week marks the first time in American history in which viewers will be able to simultaneously watch the proceedings and engage in instant, global, two-way social media communication voicing their beliefs and having their beliefs reinforced by others’ beliefs. It’s a new development for one court that carries a surprising amount of weight in presidential investigations: the court of public opinion.
Energizing the Base with the Bully Pulpit
Being of such high profile—not to mention being the face and elected leader of a nation—a sitting president commands a tremendous amount of attention from the public.
“They have the bully pulpit of their position, and their words—unlike those of any other person under investigation—can move public perception and drive the news cycle,” said Professor Paul Rosenzweig, Professorial Lecturer in Law at The George Washington University Law School. “This has been true since the beginning of the nation, but it has only become more so as the means of news dissemination have been democratized. Today, presidents don’t have to give a speech or a press conference to change public opinion—they can just tweet.”
Professor Rosenzweig said that when presidents are investigated, they often try to sway public opinion with their bully pulpit in order to control how history will see the investigation.
“The fight often boils down to a public relations battle over whether the prosecutor’s investigation of the president is: (a) a wise investment of prosecutorial discretion to support the rule of law and investigate a serious crime by an important executive, or (b) an inappropriate use of prosecutorial authority to find something to charge a political opponent with,” he said. “Which of these ‘storylines’ takes precedence is often the deciding factor in how the investigation will be viewed in hindsight.”
Professor Rosenzweig worked on the Bill Clinton investigation in the office of investigator Ken Starr and saw first-hand how this can play out. Presidents, or those close to them, can discredit their accusers with slander, which happened with Whitewater figure James B. McDougal, the real estate developer who said Clinton was complicit in his real estate scheme. Clinton supporters decried McDougal as mentally incompetent and untrustworthy and a case was never brought. In similar fashion, Donald Trump’s use of the nicknames “Nervous Nancy” and “Shifty Schiff” for Democrats Nancy Pelosi and Adam Schiff, respectively, undermine their character as legitimate investigators.
“A second line of public relations effort involved the president and his team attempting to cast doubt on the motives and bona fides of the prosecutor,” Professor Rosenzweig said. Taking to Twitter, Trump often referred to the Mueller investigation as a “witch-hunt” led by “Mueller and 12 angry Democrats,” while many of his supporters have referred to any investigations into Trump’s misconduct as partisan attacks pursuing not justice but revenge for Hillary Clinton’s failed presidential candidacy.
Public opinion affects the legacies and historical views of all those involved. With politicians now on social media outlets like Twitter, we can expect the effect to be amplified.
Professor Paul Rosenzweig contributed to this article. Professor Rosenzweig is a Professorial Lecturer in Law at The George Washington University Law School. He earned his J.D. from the University of Chicago Law School and then served as a law clerk to the Honorable R. Lanier Anderson III of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.