Rhetorical Recap: Making the Political Real

Congressman Adam Schiff, Closing Argument, Senate Impeachment Trial January 23, 2020.

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There is a lot of speechmaking going on this week in the Senate Chamber, with more to come next week. I want to call to your attention to the last nine minutes of chief impeachment manager Adam Schiff’s closing argument on Thursday night. It was exceptionally well crafted and delivered. It boiled the case for the president’s immediate removal by the Senate, as opposed to in the next election by the (electoral) voters, down to its essence.

Congressman Schiff relied heavily on rhetorical questions. Top among them: “does he [Trump] really need to be removed?” The implied affirmative rested not so much on the evidence amassed but rather on the clear and present danger Trump poses, in Schiff’s view, to the integrity of the next election. The voters’ informed and fair choice, Schiff contended, is threatened by the president’s no-holds-barred approach to the campaigns and election process.

To argue this “why he must go now” case Schiff posed two hypotheticals made realistic by what we know about cyber-war and Trump’s past behavior. Suppose Russia, which dumped information it procured in 2016 by hacking into the Democratic National Committee server, repeats that move this year and releases information it has lifted from the Ukraine gas company Burisma, on whose board Joe Biden’s son Hunter served. Suppose further that Russia, as in 2016, mixed in fictional information designed to dishearten and dissuade Americans from voting Democratic. Or, suppose China takes up Trump’s October 3 call to investigate the Bidens. Schiff could have added Iran, also highly capable of cyber-war.

In such an event, Schiff said, “You know you can’t count on him” to put the national interest first. He will put his own interest ahead of the nation.

Like all hypotheticals Schiff’s have a few contingent premises which may not pan out. Biden may not get the nomination. Americans are more alert to disinformation than in 2016. Negative ads based on opposition research and mischievous claims are not as powerful factors on voters’ decisions as they can seem.

Still, as a speech device the hypotheticals passed muster, especially when tied to the rendering of Trump’s poor public character.

To conclude Schiff quoted Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman’s testimony last November before the House Intelligence Committee that he chairs. Vindman’s phrase “Here, right matters” became the refrain for the Congressman’s final appeal with truth added as another high value:

If right doesn’t matter,

It doesn’t matter how good the Constitution is.

It doesn’t matter how brilliant the framers were.

It doesn’t matter how good or bad our advocacy in this trial is.

It doesn’t matter how well written the oath of impartiality is.

If right doesn’t matter, we’re lost.

If the truth doesn’t matter, we’re lost.

The House Democrats’ full case for the “abuse of power” impeachment count runs down a twisting and partially lighted road of reconstructed events. Their case for the “obstruction of Congress” count is simpler to grasp but involves balancing the blanket refusal to provide witnesses and documents against the principle of executive privilege. In this closing argument (for that night, at least) Schiff focused on an implicit and transcendent charge: that Trump puts in peril the American system of government and the American self-conception of being an exceptional nation unified by moral commitments.

Schiff repeated himself for emphasis too often, but his to-the-moment framing and muted yet palpable passion made for a top-grade speech.

We will see how well the president’s defenders rise to the occasion.

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