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In this image from video, impeachment manager Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., speaks in favor of a amendment offered by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., to subpoena documents from the Department of Defense, during the impeachment trial against President Donald Trump in the Senate at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020. (Senate Television via AP)
In this image from video, impeachment manager Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., speaks in favor of a amendment offered by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., to subpoena documents from the Department of Defense, during the impeachment trial against President Donald Trump in the Senate at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020. (Senate Television via AP) (AP)

One side is primarily playing to history, while the other is playing to right-wing cable TV and President Donald Trump’s base. That’s the media story within the televised impeachment trial of Mr. Trump in the Senate this week. And it’s much more engaging than I expected.

The big battle, of course, is whether or not the Senate will find Mr. Trump guilty as charged in the House articles of impeachment. But the struggle by the House Democrats to make this trial historic, even as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Team Trump try to get it over with as quickly as possible, has made for a rich and illuminating TV experience through the static eyes of Capitol Hill Senate TV (government cameras are the only ones allowed in the chamber).

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Make no mistake, Mr. McConnell looks like he has the votes to ultimately take this trial exactly where he and the president want it to go. The first 11 amendments proposed by the Democrats were voted down along party lines 53-47 in a marathon session Tuesday.

But those kinds of short-term victories could spell long term defeat in this year’s election for Mr. Trump and those who are defending him with smack-down attitude and personal attacks rather than the reasoned, legal arguments demanded by this rare and solemn constitutional procedure.

Two of the attorney’s defending Mr. Trump in the Senate trial, Pat Cipollone and Jay Sekulow, sounded more like Sean Hannity or Tucker Carlson than Clarence Darrow or William Jennings Bryan as they attacked U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., personally rather than trying to rebut the claims he made as leader of the House managers who are prosecuting Mr. Trump. In fairness, it should be noted that both U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., another of the House managers, and Mr. Cipollone were admonished by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts for their rhetoric Tuesday.

On a purely tactical level, even as amendments seeking admission of administration documents and subpoenas of White House officials were voted down, the Democrats succeeded in getting some of their evidence before the senators in the chamber and millions of viewers at home. They did it by packing the time they had to argue each amendment with videos and graphics.

One member of the House prosecution team, U.S. Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., even managed to include video in her presentation of Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC interview last week with Lev Parnas, who claims first hand knowledge of an effort by Mr. Trump to withhold money appropriated by Congress for Ukraine in an alleged attempt to get a Ukrainian investigation of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.

The House Democrats might be hopelessly boxed in and ultimately defeated by the iron grip Mr. McConnell appears to have on his Republican majority. But, through preparation and strong presentations, Mr. Schiff’s team of House managers is making it interesting and also showing the unwillingness or inability of Mr. Trump’s team of defenders to defend him of the allegations he tried to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and then cover up his actions.

But here’s the bigger cultural story of what’s playing out on our screens this week: Mr. Trump flattens virtually every aspect of government that he touches into reality TV. He did that with the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Any sense of the high purpose of the court and the rituals of nomination were seriously undercut by the way Mr. Trump staged the announcement as a prime-time, reality-TV reveal.

And the president is trying to do much the same with this Senate trial. His legal team includes not only Mr. Sekulow and Mr. Cipollone, but also Ken Starr, the prosecutor whose work led to Bill Clinton’s impeachment, and celebrity constitutional lawyer Alan Dershowitz. No one represents the way Mr. Trump is attempting to turn the process of a Senate impeachment trial into cable TV more than Mr. Dershowitz, who has appeared onscreen like an angry magpie arguing Mr. Trump’s case non-stop since being announced as a member of the president’s team last week.

So far, House Democrats in the main have treated this trial with the sense of history and importance it demands, even as they attempt to use Senate TV to reach an audience of American citizens beyond the chamber. A loss in the Senate by the Democrats could still be seen by historians as a victory for the constitutionally mandated institutions of democracy.

David Zurawik is The Sun’s media critic. Email: david.zurawik@baltsun.com; Twitter: @davidzurawik.

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