Schiff was “not just good,” Walter Dellinger, former acting U.S. solicitor general and a professor emeritus of law at Duke University, said on Twitter on Wednesday, but he gave “one of the most impressive performances by a lawyer I have ever seen.”
To CNN chief legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin, it was the “second best” courtroom-like performance he had ever seen, “dazzling.” What was the best, according to Toobin? That of Jonathan Benedict, the Connecticut prosecutor of Michael Skakel, the Kennedy family cousin convicted in 2002 in the bludgeoning death of Martha Moxley, a conviction vacated in 2018 by the Connecticut Supreme Court.
Jason Johnson, a politics and journalism professor at Morgan State University and MSNBC legal commentator, called Schiff’s presentation “a speech that kids will be giving in 2060 at university projects,” in which case the tolerance for student projects will have changed dramatically, given that Schiff talked for 2 hours 20 minutes Wednesday.
Even Trump defender Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) congratulated Schiff on a “good job,” adding that he was “very well-spoken,” according to an exchange captured by reporters for NBC News and HuffPost.
Dellinger, in an interview with The Washington Post, said it was all about the storytelling.
The challenge after months of debate, endless press coverage and endless speeches was to find a way to distill the evidence and witness testimony in the Ukraine scandal into a narrative that held together and didn’t feel stale, he said.
Schiff began his opening statement with the words of Alexander Hamilton and the fears of the Founding Fathers, placing the articles of impeachment against Trump ― abuse of power and obstruction of Congress — in a wider historical context. “We are here today — in this hallowed chamber, undertaking this solemn action for only the third time in history — because Donald J. Trump, the 45th president of the United States, has acted precisely as Hamilton and his contemporaries had feared,” Schiff said.
He then meticulously laid out the case against the president, revisiting standout moments of the career diplomats’ testimony. His rhetoric, at times sweeping, was subdued by the “quiet passion” with which he described some of the most fiery pieces of evidence, Dellinger said.
That style, he said, came in contrast to the “histrionics” of other speakers like Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) or the president’s lawyers, who earned an admonishment from Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. early Wednesday morning.
“He put it together in a way that made the president’s abuse of power breathtaking,” Dellinger said. “The Hamilton quotation put it in the context of the American story, and then he brought it home with the story of these career officials who were willing to come forward and testify, in contrast to their political superiors. That was a way of challenging senators to rise to the occasion.”
From a rhetorical perspective, poetry critic Dan Chiasson, a professor of English literature at Wellesley College, described Schiff’s strategy as telling a story “in all its sordid turns, building up to key gaps” that exposed the administration’s refusal to turn over documents or witnesses.
In one example, Schiff described a cable that William B. Taylor Jr., the former ambassador to Ukraine, sent to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in which Taylor told of the “folly” he saw in withholding the nearly $400 million in Ukraine military aid.
“Would you like me to read that [cable] to you right now? I would like to read it to you right now, except I don’t have it, because the State Department wouldn’t provide it,” Schiff said. “But if you’d like for me to read it to you, we can do something about that. We can insist on getting that from the State Department. If you’d like to know what John Bolton had in mind when he thought that [Ukraine President Volodymyr] Zelensky could favorably impress the president in Warsaw, we can find that out too — in a document called a subpoena.”
“It’s a brilliant rhetorical contrivance,” Chiasson wrote on Twitter. “He keeps building to these cliffhangers, then presenting the missing evidence as a coming-attraction, a tune-in-next-week with just one condition: ‘Subpoena.’ ”
The Washington Post commentator Jennifer Rubin said Schiff hit a “grand slam.”
By contrast, Fox News commentators spent most of their energy mocking the “gushing” at CNN and MSNBC.
“CNN’s Jeffrey Toobin fawns over Schiff’s ‘dazzling’ performance,’” said the headline on a piece by Fox News media writer Joseph A. Wulfsohn.
“While Schiff may have dazzled CNN personalities, he struggled to keep lawmakers’ attention toward the end of his opening argument,” Wulfsohn wrote.
To some, Schiff’s rhetoric was just that: rhetoric. Some argued he scored no points in winning crossover votes from Republicans, as the Federalist wrote in one commentary, describing his speech as an attempt “to grasp at some form of political gravitas.”
Mike Rogers, the former Republican congressman from Michigan who served as chairman of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence from 2011 to 2015, said on CNN that Schiff and the other Democratic House managers lacked a “big moment.”
By “big,” he meant like in the movie “Miracle on 34th Street,” “where the lawyer pounds the table and they bring the mail in to prove that there is a Santa Claus,” Rogers said. “That’s not going to happen here.”
“There’s lots of that flowery language that isn’t evidence, but they’re trying to make their narrative politically, and this is a big, blunt instrument,” Rogers said. “I think their burden is to prove to the public their case, and I thought it was very disjointed today. If you’re just an average citizen trying to get a handle on this today, I thought it was really hard to follow. And nobody’s going to listen to a two-and-a-half-hour speech.”
Those who would like to listen to Schiff’s speech can do so here.