Get ready for the split-screen presidency: televised proceedings in Congress to remove Trump from office occurring with near-simultaneous video of Trump exercising the powers of the presidency.
The first hint of what is to come was on December 18, when the vote in the House of Representatives to impeach Trump for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress was concluded just as Trump took the stage in Michigan to rally his base and denounce the radical conspiracy, the hoax, the witch hunt, that was reaching a new zenith under the Capitol dome that night.
And so now we have images of the president signing the first phase of the US-China trade agreement – both a partial end and a cease-fire to the bitter trade differences between the world’s two largest economies – as the House voted to formally send the two articles of impeachment over to the Senate which will then take the initial steps under its rules to convene the impeachment trial, presided over by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Roberts.
This bipolar political world will continue to unfold in the coming weeks. President Trump is due to be in Davos, Switzerland next week for the World Economic Forum, meeting with the most powerful world leaders, corporate titans, and civil society guardians – while the Senate will hear opening arguments from the House prosecutors.
This playing field is larger than the Senate floor and wherever Trump is. As Democratic candidates debated in Iowa, Trump was on stage at a political rally in Wisconsin.
This is his nature. President Trump does not believe in defence; he knows only offence. The level of presidential hyperactivity will go up until the trial is concluded. On January 28, Trump is holding a rally in New Jersey, in the district of the congressman who defected from the Democrats and became a Republican just before the House impeachment votes. On January 28, 5 days before Iowa, Trump will hold a rally in Des Moines, Iowa, just to send a message to the Iowans who voted their state for Trump in 2016, and to reinforce the China trade deal benefits of the new wave of agriculture sales to China awaiting them.
For the Democrats running for their party’s nomination, there will be near-constant noise to compete with. It is likely the Senate impeachment trial will still be underway February 3, when Iowa Democrats will send their smoke signal from their caucuses as to who they believe should be entrusted with the Democratic nomination to defeat Trump in November.
The next day, February 4, Trump is to deliver the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who drove his impeachment, sitting behind Trump’s left shoulder. Vice President Mike Pence, who will assume the presidency if Trump is convicted and removed from office, will sit behind Trump’s right shoulder. And the 100 Senators sitting in judgment of the man addressing them, together with the Chief Justice, will be arrayed before Trump on the House chamber floor.
And on February 11, the Democrats of New Hampshire will hold their presidential primary, with a most significant political moment in their hands: if the winner of Iowa also wins New Hampshire, that person will more likely than not be the Democratic nominee.
We have seen emanations of this split-screen presidency before: when President Trump attacked via Twitter witnesses in the House impeachment hearings as they were testifying, and when he commented in real-time on the debate unfolding on the House floor before the votes to impeach.
Trump will use the split-screen presidency to counter, if not nullify, the hard narrative of presidential abuse of power and contempt for norms of governance that will echo throughout the Senate chamber, and onto screens around the world.
The split-screen presidency is not the new normal in American politics, because impeachment is abnormal. But this is how we will absorb and ultimately comprehend the astonishing things we will witness – and make judgments about them, and the future course of America’s Republic, if Americans can keep it.