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Trump's second impeachment trial is more watchable than his first — by a lot

Day Two of the impeachment trial was a riveting, engaging and must-watch tour of Trump's assault on democracy.
Photo collage showing images of a hand holding a file, Del. Stacey Plaskett speaking, Donald Trump speaking on a stage and Joaquin Castro, connected with a graph.
House Democrats put together eight hours of riveting presentations.Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Getty Images

For the second time in a little over a year, House Democrats laid out evidence that former President Donald Trump had committed a crime against the Constitution. For hours, senators again sat as the impeachment managers hammered home that Trump had tried to swing the outcome of the presidential election.

But that's about where the similarities end. The first impeachment trial, which promised to be the trial of the century, failed to deliver. Ironically enough, it's only after the White House had seen the last of Trump — who, for all of his many, many faults, is a consummate showman — that Democrats managed to put together a riveting, engaging and must-watch tour of his assault on democracy.

That's thanks to a combination of lessons learned from 2020 and a case that is in itself wildly more visceral. All in all, there are five reasons why this trial is more watchable — and why I'm wondering whether these coming days might change Senate Republicans' calculus on how to vote on conviction.

First, this time around the Democrats laid out a crystal-clear storyline. I was deep in the weeds of the first impeachment trial, covering it for a daily podcast at the time, and I have to say — it was a muddled and confusing affair. I struggled to condense the complex plot into short sentences that people could easily follow. This time, the arc from Trump's early claims of election fraud to his speech riling up his supporters down the street from Congress to the sacking of the Capitol unfolded like a horrifying movie plot.

Second, the prosecutors Wednesday had a personal stake in the proceedings, and that carried through in their presentations. That's no shade to Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., and the other impeachment managers who presented the case in 2020. I thought Schiff's off-the-cuff speeches at the time were marvels of oration. But they didn't have the command of the proceedings this week. Reps. Joe Neguse, Joaquin Castro, Ted Lieu, Madeline Dean and Eric Swalwell and Delegate Stacey Plaskett were all brilliant.

And, unlike the relatively dry business of describing a pressure campaign on a foreign president, this time Trump's crimes are personal for the members of Congress, who were all present during the assault. Each of the prosecutors had a story to tell from that day. A range of emotions — outrage, disbelief, horror and, in some cases, deep sadness — were on full display.

Third, the Democrats had access to more eye-popping video to work with. Instead of relying on a transcript of Trump's "perfect call" with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, we have video of Trump openly encouraging his supporters to march on the Capitol. All the video taken on Jan. 6 and before, stitched together from various sources, makes for fascinating, harrowing television.

Fourth, in the first day of their arguments, Democrats introduced something that was missing last time: new evidence. Without the ability to call witnesses, House impeachment managers last year had to reshuffle the materials. On Wednesday, prosecutors aired unseen video from Capitol security cameras and audio from Capitol Police dispatch desperately calling for backup.

And fifth, the Ukraine affair lacked a smoking gun. While Trump's role was implied, there was no clear villain. Was Rudy Giuliani freelancing when he was gallivanting around Ukraine looking for evidence to smear Joe Biden? Was Trump pressuring Zelenskiy or just doing his job as president? This time around, there's no question, nobody else for Trump to hide behind. He is the perpetrator. He's the bad guy here.

This time around, there's no question, nobody else for Trump to hide behind. He is the perpetrator. He's the bad guy here.

The result is that the case being argued on TVs and phones and computer screens around the country is easier to follow than Trump's first impeachment and with stakes infinitely higher than those during President Bill Clinton's impeachment trial. And the television ratings are likely to be higher than for either of the other impeachment trials in my lifetime.

Amazingly, there's still a full eight-hour day left for House managers to make their case Thursday. Then, beginning Friday, Trump's defense has two days of its own to provide a counterargument. And honestly, I'm hard-pressed to see what it could possibly offer in response to the overwhelming evidence that's been presented so far.

Now, yes, we've been here before, with what seemed like overwhelming evidence to convict and only the smallest of hopes that there might be a different outcome from the one we all see coming. But the strength of the prosecution's presentation is forcing me to start counting noses on the Republican side and game out the final vote.

We've already seen that these arguments matter. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., on Tuesday joined five other Republicans and Senate Democrats on the constitutionality of the trial. Afterward, Cassidy attributed his vote to the impeachment managers, saying, "If I'm an impartial juror and one side is doing a great job and the other side is doing a terrible job on the issue at hand, as an impartial juror I'm going to vote for the side that did the good job."

That's still 11 Republicans short of conviction if all six voted with Democrats. But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., reportedly still hasn't decided how he's going to vote. And Bloomberg News reported that he told his caucus that senators like himself "who disputed the constitutionality of the trial could still vote to convict the former president."

Reports from inside the Senate chamber also make it clear that the prosecution is having an effect on some Republicans, who were rapt during the airing of the new security video. Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., had to be consoled while watching video of the mob crushing a Capitol Police officer in a doorway. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, said on MSNBC during a dinner break that an unnamed Republican senator told him: "I hope everyone in the country has seen this." And Senate Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., told reporters that he also hadn't made up his mind about how to vote, calling the case "very compelling."

Look, I'm not expecting Democrats to go full Charlie Brown staring at that stupid football again. I know It has to be yanked away, I tell myself, because I can't let myself be fooled again. But after watching Wednesday's opening efforts, I believe the impeachment managers have at least made the goalpost look within reach of a solid kick.