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Opinion | Will the Trump Impeachment Hearings Become a Circus?

With the impeachment inquiry underway in the House of Representatives, House members have the choice of maintaining a deliberate and thoughtful process or succumbing to the temptations of reality TV and social media memes, turning a solemn and serious undertaking into a political circus. Unfortunately, if Wednesday’s opening round was any indication, Republicans have decided to pursue the latter — with gusto.

The risk that an impeachment inquiry into President Trump would invite crass politicization was always going to be high: Look at the players. In a starring role, we have the P.T. Barnum of presidents, a man who somehow escaped his legacy of bankruptcies to become an all-powerful executive on television. His role was to yell “you’re fired” to eliminate contestants on “The Apprentice.” He obviously did a good job memorizing his lines, and has used that phrase regularly in the White House. That same dark, manic energy has infected his most outspoken defenders, including two, Representatives Devin Nunes and Jim Jordan, who participated in Wednesday’s hearing.

Another major figure in this drama, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, can claim to be the only other national leader whose election was even more dependent on artifice. Mr. Zelensky created and starred in a television series called “Servant of the People” in which he played a teacher elected president of Ukraine on an anti-corruption platform. Mr. Zelensky’s message of fighting a culture of government graft hit a nerve with the Ukrainian people, who subsequently elected the actor president, representing a party named after the TV show.

Now these two TV personalities are joined in one program that is being aired in front of the American people. The charge that Mr. Trump attempted to leverage foreign aid to Ukraine to advance his 2020 electoral prospects provides an ironic counterpoint to Mr. Zelensky’s election as a reformer and specifically a fighter against the bribery prevalent in Ukraine under his predecessor, Petro Poroshenko.

Then there are Mr. Trump’s supporting characters, beginning with his lawyer Rudy Giuliani and his two Ukrainian American sidekicks, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman — a casting agent’s dream. Even the arrest of those two henchmen, recently charged with criminal violations of campaign finance laws, was dramatic, verging on staged, as federal law enforcement agents apprehended them on the jetway as they tried to board a plane to flee the country.

None of the details, despite how delicious they might seem to media commentators, should persuade anyone to ignore the main focus of this undertaking: The House of Representatives is considering whether to draft articles of impeachment against a sitting president. Impeachment is rightly a very rare occurrence. A democracy must respect the election process, unless an official has committed a “high crime or misdemeanor” that may have or has inflicted fundamental harm to our nation.

Still, during the weeks leading up to Wednesday, it was always clear that the two parties largely occupied two realities, with Democrats intent on whether President Trump violated his oath of office, and Republicans intent on serving up sound bites for a Fox News highlight reel.

To his credit, Congressman Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has constructed an approach that could avoid sullying this solemn hearing with partisan antics. In consultation with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and other congressional leaders, he has put at least some of the questioning of witnesses in the hands of capable professional staff. The Democrats’ approach is one that was used during Watergate and recognizes that exposing the facts is the most important part of any hearing and helps ensure that the hearings don’t become political theater.

Many members of Congress — in both parties — likely find this process frustrating. Most of them, accustomed to the freewheeling hearings usually held by committees, are used to using mining such moments for campaign fodder; scoring political points or getting out a glib phrase are the main goal. The urge to utter a hash-taggable phrase generally trumps efforts to build a coherent narrative in service of an objective, like uncovering government malfeasance or incompetence.

As the hearings progress, Mr. Schiff and Ms. Pelosi must resist pressure to provide opportunities for their fellow members, Democrats or Republicans, to grandstand by opening up questioning to all those who are no doubt demanding the floor. Outside of Congress, political organizations, including the two national committees, have set up “war rooms” to battle each other in a Twitter war over the hearings. These efforts are unseemly and only serve to underscore the danger of our politics becoming just another version of reality TV.

So how did the committee do on its first day? It could have been worse; Mr. Schiff used the House rules deftly to rebut the most egregious of Republican attempts to distract the hearing by bringing up conspiracy theories based on spurious evidence. But this was not for lack of trying: Representative Jordan manically repeated conspiracy-tinged Republican talking points, sticking to the script outlined by the president himself, tweet by tweet.

Repeating the false claim that Mr. Schiff and the Democrats know the identity of the whistle-blower, who first alerted the world to Mr. Trump’s Ukraine machinations, and are keeping it a secret from Republicans, Mr. Jordan demanded that the public get to hear from the “person who started it all.” Without irony or shame, Mr. Jordan shouted that the whistle-blower was the person most eagerly trying to undermine the rule of law, and not the president who decided to use foreign aid as leverage to instigate the investigation of a political rival.

As president, Mr. Trump has fought congressional efforts at oversight with a vehemence that far exceeds the resistance of past presidents. Attempting to change the narrative about Russian interference in the 2016 election, he attacked his enemies and reviled any intelligence officials who provided evidence that the interference had indeed happened. He has fired multiple high-level aides and excoriated others. From the beginning of his presidency, Mr. Trump has tried to gaslight us into believing we are living in his TV show.

With the opening of the impeachment inquiry, Congress has the opportunity to remind the public what’s at stake. This is not an episode of “The Apprentice” or “Judge Judy.” We are witnessing a vital moment in American history. Let’s hope these hearings serve as a lesson in responsible governance and not as an epitaph for reality-based politics.

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