CNN host Brian Stelter opened Sunday’s edition of Reliable Sources with a discussion about the “I” word: “impeachment.” Stelter argued that “President Trump is winning the messaging war about impeachment.” Echoing the talking points Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick made on the show two weeks ago, Stelter claimed that “the list of potentially impeachable conduct grows longer every week.”
Stelter appeared disappointed that the media’s coverage of the impeachment debate has focused on “the process, not the substance.” According to Stelter, the media spends too much time obsessing over questions such as “which Democrats support an impeachment inquiry” and whether or not impeachment will actually take place. Stelter acknowledged that “the substance,” meaning President Trump’s impeachable conduct, “is being covered by the press” before complaining that “the divisions within the Democratic Party are the big story.”
During a conversation with his panel, Stelter acted as a Democratic strategist; asking Alexandra Rojas of the progressive group Justice Democrats, “Shouldn’t Nancy Pelosi and other Democrat leaders every day be talking about the corruption” of President Trump? Not surprisingly, Rojas answered in the affirmative; claiming that the Democrats have “a constitutional responsibility…to pursue an impeachment inquiry” and urging them to “step up.”
Stelter’s panel also included Lithwick, whose impeachment talking points Stelter enthusiastically repeated at the top of the show. She tried to make the case that while “we have this notion that it is this thermonuclear end-times thing,” “the framers didn’t intend for impeachment to be thermonuclear.”
As the impeachment conversation continued, Stelter read aloud an op-ed from The San Francisco Chronicle arguing that “Trump has provided no shortage of prospective high crimes and misdemeanors. Under such circumstances, Democrats should be less worried about admitting they’re considering impeachment and more concerned about creating the impression that they aren’t.” Stelter asked Lithwick, “what does it mean if the Democrats in the United States do not take action against this...corruption that’s going on every day?”
Lithwick responded by complaining that many Republicans and Democrats agree that “whatever it is that Trump is doing isn’t sufficient to warrant this conversation.” Lithwick proceeded to reiterate the talking points she shared on her previous appearance on Reliable Sources: “the articles of impeachment against Nixon, the articles of impeachment that...actually convicted Bill Clinton; those are the kinds of things that Donald Trump does weekly.” Following the conclusion of her remarks, Stelter asked Lithwick, “is it a failure of the press that that’s not clear enough to more people?”
The press’s failure to convince the American people to support impeachment isn’t because of a lack of trying. For example, the cable and broadcast news networks uttered the word “impeachment” 363 times in the 24 hours following the release of the Mueller report.
A transcript of the relevant portion of Sunday’s edition of Reliable Sources is below. Click “expand” to read more.
BRIAN STELTER: But, first, the “I” word. President Trump is winning the messaging war about impeachment. Democrats are losing. And I’m noticing that the Dems are under increasing pressure, including from members of the media, to explain their mixed messaging and their failure to communicate. You know, whenever impeachment is in the air, there are stories about the process, stories about the substance…process on one hand, substance on the other. This is actually true in all sorts of political coverage. With Nixon, the substance was about crimes and cover-ups. With Clinton, it was about lying under oath and obstructing justice. With Trump, journalists keep uncovering allegations of corruption and obstruction. The list of potentially impeachable conduct grows longer every week, but the political coverage is usually about the process; not the substance, the process. Which Democrats support an impeachment inquiry? Which don’t? Will they impeach? Won’t they? And now, to be fair to the reporters who are chasing the story every day, they are covering the process because the process is a mess. The mixed messages have become the story instead of the substance. Now, the Justice Department is even using the Dems’ mixed messages to dismiss…to undercut the attempt at a House probe. Meanwhile, headlines keep popping up about more and more potential scandals. Again, the substance is being covered by the press. Here’s Politico’s scoop about the Air Force, about the Pentagon spending money at Trump’s resorts. And, of course, this issue about spending money at Trump properties has been all over the news; The Washington Post covering this, The New York Times covering this. They keep breaking news about this topic; what the head of the ethics group Public Citizen recently called, “the normalization of corruption.” Now, this week, a federal appeals court revived a lawsuit saying that Trump is violating the Constitution by doing business with foreign governments. The stories keep coming and coming about profiting from the presidency, abusing executive power to punish enemies and allegedly obstructing investigations. So, all of this is going on, and yet on television, you see Fox warning about impeachment, but the Democrats, the divisions within the Democratic Party are the big story. Meanwhile, the President is winning the messaging war. On Friday morning, he went on a tweet storm. CNN’s Daniel Dale found that in three tweets, the President made six false claims while arguing that he shouldn’t be impeached. So, he’s making up all of this stuff, he’s lying constantly, and yet he is winning the messaging war. It is a remarkable situation to see that…that in September of 2019, that this is the conversation about what the Democrats may or may not do as they inch their way toward impeachment. So, let’s talk more about this with our panel that’s with me here in New York today. Joining me to discuss this is executive director for Justice Democrats and CNN Commentator, Alexandra Rojas; a Senior Editor for Slate magazine, Dahlia Lithwick; and a staff writer for The New Yorker and a CNN Analyst here, Susan Glasser. Thank you all for being here. I’m fascinated by this daily coverage of…of this story. Susan, this…this impeachment debate or maybe the lack of a debate is something that’s confusing in Washington, I think, and all across the country.
SUSAN GLASSER: Confusing? I mean, that’s right. I have no idea how to explain this. And you know, we’re supposed to be following it. And so, Brian, I think you’ve really hit on something. We are having almost this medieval, ecclesiastical debate, right? How many angels dance on the head of the pin? When is an impeachment process an impeachment proceeding, an impeachment debate? It’s confusing. It…Democrats are defensive and divided about it, and have made the story into their own inability to understand how to counter Trump. At the same time that Trump clearly, I think he perceives a political benefit in talking about it; warning about impeachment.
STELTER: Interesting. I think right-wing media does as well.
STELTER: I see segments on Fox all the time about impeachment that don’t actually live up to what’s actually going on in the House of Representatives. Left-wing media pushing for impeachment, journalists in the middle trying to figure out what is going on. Alexandra, what do you think is going on; looking at this from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party?
ALEXANDRA ROJAS: Well, I mean, I think the fact that we’re talking about this as winners and losers and who’s winning and who’s losing the messaging battle is getting away from, I think, the real substance, right, of the issue that I know is getting coverage. But especially on… you know, in the media, I think we have to be talking about repeatedly, instead of framing it always as there and I think this could also be a huge opportunity…
STELTER: But shouldn’t the Democrats be doing that? Shouldn’t Nancy Pelosi and other Democrat leaders every day be talking about the corruption?
ROJAS: Absolutely. I think day in and day out, they should be talking about that. They should be…you know, I think this could be a huge opportunity for Democrats to take this head-on. And I think, you know, at the end of the day, they have their constitutional responsibility as the…you know, members of Congress to pursue an impeachment inquiry. And the confusion, I think is, you know, unfortunate, but they have to, you know, do better and step up. And I think they still have an opportunity to do that.
STELTER: Dahlia, what’s your read on this?
DAHLIA LITHWICK: I think that we have completely misapprehended what impeachment is. We have this notion that it is this thermonuclear end-times thing. And even the process of beginning an impeachment inquiry, we then treat as though that’s lumped in with that; this catastrophic thing that’s going to go wrong for everyone. The framers didn’t intend for impeachment to be thermonuclear. They said, this is the only check we have that the political branches can avail themselves of. The framers actually deliberately toned down the British version of impeachment. You’re not stripped of your title. You’re not stripped of your lands if you’re impeached under the U.S. constitutional system. They wanted it to be much easier than the British system that they had inherited. And yet we treat it as though, to even speak of beginning the process of thinking about talking about impeachment, takes us right into DefCon 90. And that’s absolutely not what the framers intended.
STELTER: Interesting. You know, Nancy Pelosi’s hometown newspaper, The San Francisco Chronicle, is out with an editorial this weekend about impeachment. Let me put part of it on the screen. The editorial says: “Procedure and process aside, Trump has provided no shortage of prospective high crimes and misdemeanors. Under such circumstances, Democrats should be less worried about admitting they’re considering impeachment and more concerned about creating the impression that they aren’t.” Dahlia, I think that’s an important part of this. What does it mean if the Democrats in the United States do not take action against this potentially corruption that’s going on every day?
LITHWICK: Well, it means that you have the Republicans and the Democrats agreeing that whatever it is that Trump is doing isn’t sufficient to warrant this conversation. And that has to be wrong. It has to be exactly inverted. Democrats are supposed to be saying, look, the kinds of things that Nixon was, was…the articles of impeachment against Nixon…
LITHWICK: …the articles of impeachment that were actually convicted Bill Clinton, those are the kinds of things that Donald Trump does weekly, casually. And it’s a handful of things, among many more things…
STELTER: But is it a failure of the press that that’s not clear enough to enough people?
LITHWICK: Well, I think that the press loves a horse race. And the story the press wants to tell is exactly the story of, will they, won’t they, how close are they, who’s in, who’s out? That has nothing to do with the substantive daily corruption, grifting, self-dealing, lying, endangering the military that we’re seeing. Those are the stories that the press can’t really bring into the story of impeachment, because they’re too busy talking about conflicts at the top levels of the party.
STELTER: Congresswoman Ilhan Omar was on CBS today; saying, it’s not a matter of if the Democrats will seek impeachment, it’s when they will do so. Alexandra, when she says something like that on CBS, is she trying to communicate to House leadership? Are…are freshmen Democrats trying to get through to the leaders like that?
ROJAS: She should be, yeah. I think that there’s an urgency here, right? And I think the other thing that Democrats aren’t thinking about is that regardless of what happens, Donald Trump, this time next year is going to be saying, if Democrats don’t do anything about it, hey, Democrats aren’t pursuing me. I did nothing wrong, as always. So, I think it’s a really big mistake of Democrats right now to not be pursuing it. And it’s courageous leaders like Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib who are really I think leading by showing the American people the…the way. And we have to have a spotlight on it, and, unfortunately, I think, you know, Democratic leadership is…the hesitancy is what’s, I think, holding us back.