‘Sham’? ‘Rule of law’? How the House debate set the stage for the impeachment trial

Republicans and Democrats had two very different arguments during six hours of contentious debate over impeaching president Trump last month. Each party repeated phrases throughout, with little overlap in the terms they used, a USA TODAY analysis found.

Those talking points likely foreshadow the case each party will lay out during the upcoming Senate trial.

Republican’s top phrases criticized what they viewed as the partisan nature of the proceedings. The party referred to “the other side” 30 times, and used words like “sham” and “charade.”

Democrats, meanwhile, focused on their case against President Trump. They referred to the concept of “above the law” 75 times, and the “oath of office” nearly 50 more.

Each party’s message was clear, and there was very little overlap. Only 12 phrases appear in each party’s 50 most common phrases during the hearing. Eight of those phrases are unremarkable, referring to “the United States” or “the president” in some fashion. 

Jennifer Grygiel, an assistant professor of communications at Syracuse university who specializes in memes, said the lack of overlap is strategic by both sides.

“If they use the same terms they would be reinforcing the framing taking place,” they said. “You would not anticipate that they would be using the same phrases.”

One of the few things both sides could agree on? It was a “sad day,” though each side had different reasons.

That phrase is designed to reach independent voters, said Frank Luntz, a longtime Republican consultant.

“People are disappointed in where we are right now,” he said. “It’s better to communicate sadness and disappointment than anger and rage…. Sadness and disappointment communicate what everyone in the center is thinking and feeling.”

Another phrase both parties used repeatedly was “abuse of power,” a charge on which the president was impeached. 

Representatives uttered the phrase 116 times.

In every case, Democrats used the phrase to build the case for impeachment.

“To our founding generation, abuse of power was a specific, well-defined offense,” said Jerrold Nadler, D-New York. “A president may not misuse the powers of the presidency to obtain an improper personal benefit. The evidence shows that president Trump did exactly that.”

Republicans used the phrase in two ways. Many attacked the charge itself, calling it was vague or arguing  the specifics of the case against Trump didn’t support it. 

Others levied the same charge against their Democratic peers.

“The real abuse of power here is on the part of the House Democrats as they have feverishly produced and pursued this impeachment 20 times faster than the impeachment investigation of Bill Clinton,” said Mike Johnson, R-Louisiana.

Republicans also used the phrase “obstruction of congress” 26 times.

Speakers from both parties spoke of an “impeachable offense,” but were divided about whether or not it existed. 

Republicans heavily used the phrase “quid pro quo,” while Democrats referred to a “White House meeting” far more often than their colleagues.

As the debate unfolded, Democrats repeatedly referred to the oath all members of Congress take to “defend the constitution.” They cast the House has having no choice but to impeach the president, repeating phrases such as “above the law”, and “checks and balances.”

Almost every Democrat speaker mentioned the “Constitution,” and more than half used the word “democracy.” Only Democrats used the phrase “foreign interference.”

Luntz said the lopsided use of the term “our national security” was particularly interesting.

“That’s the one area Republicans might have had an advantage,” he said. “If Democrats are saying that, clearly they have figured out this undermines Trumps’ credibility and undermines his ability to win re-election.”

Republicans’ focus on “the American people” was a stark contrast to Democrats use of “The United States,” Luntz said.

“Democrats are talking about institutions, Republicans are trying to individualize it, personalize it,” he said.

Republicans focused on “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors,” the impeachment conditions listed in Article II of the Constitution. More than a dozen GOP speakers cited those terms, while only one Democrat used the word “treason.”

Luntz said the relatively higher numbers of repeated phrases among democrats indicated that the party was on message during the hearing.

Democrats said their top ten phrases 630 times. The top ten phrases among Republicans totaled 456. 

Grygiel, though, said the top phrases among Democrats were part and parcel of the nature of the discussion.

“Those are the types of words that you would use if someone committed some kind of wrongdoing,” they said.

Grygiel said the heavy use of the phrase “duly elected president” communicated far more than meets the eye.

“It’s trying to invoke the fact that the president was legitimately elected,” they said. “That he’s the head of the United States. It’s reminding people, quickly, that he’s in charge. They’re building up his legitimacy while he’s being impeached for his actions.”

The messaging floated during the impeachment hearing likely set the stage for the way both parties will try to influence public opinion during the trial itself. Grygiel said repeated phrases from the hearing may well turn into memes in the upcoming weeks.

“There are going to be a lot of attempts to influence opinion over the next couple of weeks,” they said. “People will be trying to shape how they feel about these outcomes.”

Dak Le and Mike Stucka contributed to this report

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