If the US impeachment inquiry hearings were a boxing match, then the conservative media in the US are claiming victory in the first round.
It was, Sean Hannity said on his Fox News show, “an embarrassing flop”.
They scoffed at the fact the witnesses were “relying on hearsay” and that they were not speaking from first-hand experience.
If Bill Taylor, the acting ambassador to Ukraine, and top US diplomat George Kent were the “star witnesses” – being the first two put up to give testimony at the public hearings – then what were the rest of the speakers going to be like?
Even before the first public hearing began, conservative media – and commentators – in the US were getting their barbs ready.
“Guilty – now for the trial” read the headline of tabloid the New York Post, with cartoonish depictions of key players Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
And President Donald Trump, who later said he was too busy to watch, was tweeting out comments from the morning show Fox and Friends, which said that the “powerful tool” of impeachment had been turned into a “political cudgel”.
On the other hand, some simply said it was “boring” and a “nothing burger”.
Breitbart talked of Schiff’s “opening snoozer” while press secretary Stephanie Grisham declared the hearing “boring” and Eric Trump went one better, saying it was “horribly boring… #snoozefest”. His brother Donald Trump Jr, speaking on Fox News, described it as a “comedy”, saying: “The American people are sick of this garbage.”
The impeachment inquiry has been going on for more than a month – but all previous hearings were private, with reports based on leaks and sources speaking to the media.
Wednesday’s public hearings were the first time that Americans heard from witnesses directly.
For a TV show, it seems some were expecting more fireworks.
“The Democrats aren’t good TV producers,” said Brian Kilmeade, host of Fox and Friends, on what was billed as Thursday morning’s “post-game show”. “On a TV show, you want the premiere episode to be engaging.”
There were, co-host Steve Doocy agreed, “no cliff-hangers”. It showed, said White House adviser Kellyanne Conway, “how desperate Democrats are to get President Trump”.
Graphics behind Hannity on his evening show on Wednesday declared it to be “the worst show on earth”.
“It was a total Schiff show,” he said, punning on the chairman’s surname.
While it was “supposed to be their big day”, he said it was “anticlimactic”, with Democrats putting forward “uncompelling bureaucrats”, “people who seem to care more about Ukraine first policies than America first policies”, and he denounced Schiff as a “congenital liar”.
It was, he said, more about “rumours, hearsay and conjecture” as he played clips of Republican Jim Jordan verbally challenging the witnesses.
His guests agreed, with contributor Mark Levin calling Schiff an “incompetent, left-wing boob”, and saying he couldn’t tell if the witnesses were “doing a job interview… or they were homeless guys”.
Fellow host Laura Ingraham said it was “a complete and utter disaster for Adam Schiff”.
Author and Trump Students chairman Charlie Kirk was among those livetweeting the inquiry. He said on Thursday that it was “an egregious abuse of power”, having branded it the “hearsay hearing”.
The witnesses, wrote Alana Mastrangelo for Breitbart, were simply unable to answer a question about what was impeachable about President Trump’s phone call with the Ukrainian president.
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Oliver Darcy, CNN’s senior media reporter, said: “What you see is the conservative media is very willing to amplify the message from Republican lawmakers – they’re really hyping moments and video clips of Republicans like Devin Nunes and Jim Jordan. They’re framing those clips as ‘Jim Jordan destroys so and so’ or ‘Devin Nunes eviscerates so and so’.
“If you actually consume the media and see that, you would walk away thinking the hearing was a total victory for Donald Trump. They’re just covering the angles that make him look good.
“It’s also not surprising that some were saying it’s a sham – but I think the strongest message for their supporters is going to be these clips of Republican congressmen going after the witnesses and after the chairman Adam Schiff.”
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He said what would be key was how the coverage plays out with those with no strong political affiliations.
“People loyal to Trump will consume talk radio, and other right-wing media, and they’ll be feeling pretty good because they’re seeing the messages that reinforce their world view,” he said.
“The liberals, if they’re consuming left-wing media, will be also feeling pretty good, thinking the administration has been exposed. We need to wait and see what the rest of the country feels – that’s really the great unknown. Part of the purpose of this is to move the middle – the die-hard Republicans are not going to change their minds.”
Ron Christie, Republican political commentator and former adviser to US President George W Bush, agreed that “both sides have retreated behind their lines”.
“The conservative narrative seems to be that this is a fraud, this is a trial in search of a crime, it is a grave misservice to the president and will divide the country and do harm to the country,” he said.
“I think what we’ve seen in the testimony is that both sides have retreated behind their lines. The Republicans saying this is a fraud with no first-hand testimony, only second or third hand, and the Democrats saying Rudy Giuliani’s conduct was highly inappropriate and that President Trump tried to get something of personal and political gain from the Ukrainian president.
“If you ask people, ‘did your impression change from 10am to when it finished?’, the answer would be no. Having CNN and Fox on at the same time, the two screens had people talking at the same time but looking at the words on the bottom of the screen, you’d think they were two entirely different proceedings.”
But he said regular Americans who aren’t in the Washington DC bubble want to know “why Democrats are doing this” – and that having the hearing on TV “makes it real”.
“There’s a recognition that this is historic. It’s no longer transcripts – they saw the chairman and the ranking member offer statements, witnesses give testimony. But did watching it change people’s impressions?
“While there are Republicans, and Democrats, there are more people in the US who are independent. How does it play out with them? People will be turning on the television and for the first time it will be real to them.”
Hugo Gurdon, editor-in-chief of the Washington Examiner, said that while it helps having the hearing televised, nothing had materially changed the arguments for or against the president.
“The Ukraine gambit follows the Russia collusion gambit – it’s like the boy who cried wolf. People don’t come running,” he added.
“It’s not as if the president is denying the transcript. There’s no dispute. It’s a dispute of interpretation. On one extreme level, Trump is saying the call was perfect, other people are saying there was nothing wrong with it, others say it wasn’t very good but it doesn’t mean you overturn the election result. And then there are those who have gone over the borderline to saying it’s impeachable.”
He said his readership would “agree with the proposition, which seems to be a strong one, that the Democrats have been planning to undermine President Trump since before he was in office”.
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