President Donald Trump. | Andrew Harrer-Pool/Getty Images
He scrutinizes behind-the-scenes details of his television interviews, preferring to be shot in natural light and from the right side because he likes the way his hair looks from that angle.
He cares about how the back-and-forth parrying with the White House press corps looks on TV, sometimes directing camera crews to move to the right or the left for the best shot.
He notes how his aides perform on cable shows, closely watches TV ratings — compiled each week by a staffer — and manages how official speeches and announcements will look on screen.
It’s all part of President Donald Trump merging his position as head of the executive branch with his role as executive producer of his presidency. White House aides and Trump allies are bracing for the Senate impeachment trial to put the president’s television-focused mind on full display during a memorable moment for his presidency.
The Republican-controlled Senate is expected to quickly acquit Trump, so the White House’s goal with the impeachment trial is to sway public opinion ahead of Trump’s crucial 2020 reelection bid.
The biggest gamble now is the White House’s decision to put Pat Cipollone, the top attorney, out in front as the face of the president’s defense. While Cipollone is known as a well-respected litigator within conservative circles and a close ally of the president, his chops on TV remain unproven at best. “I do think we will see a lot of Pat Cipollone for the first time, and that is something everyone is anticipating. I don’t know how much TV Pat has done,” a former senior administration official said.
Cipollone spent Friday huddling with the president’s personal attorney, Jay Sekulow, in the White House. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie also spent the day in the West Wing.
Additionally, the president met last week with Senate Majority Mitch McConnell to see a Kentucky judge and discuss the format of the Senate trial. Trump has taken cues from McConnell and close aides who understand the president’s inclination to put on a show for his defense, but have warned against the trial turning into a TV circus with a parade of witnesses.
“The president is very attuned to how people perform on TV,” a senior administration official said. “He knows he will be acquitted, but is itching to get his side of the story told under oath and in front of the world. He’s itching to have a robust defense be the best offense.”
For a president who is eager to see the end of the impeachment episode, he will be watching closely to ensure his best defense is displayed to the nation. The White House sees a PR advantage to the trial format. While many Americans aren’t aware of the procedures of the House committee hearings that led to drafting articles of impeachment, most have a familiarity with the basics of how a trial works, either from experience or watching TV. Trump is expected to follow along in real time just as he did during the House’s televised hearings in the fall.
“Oh, he’s going to pay attention and will certainly weigh in as it happens,” a former senior administration official said.
But some visual aspects of the Senate trial do not give the White House much room for input, particularly details that typically matter to the president. The trial must take place in the Senate chamber with the lighting just as it’s always been. The TV cameras will shoot downward in the same position they held for the Clinton impeachment trial, a senior administration official said. And a yet-to-be-agreed upon set of Senate rules will strictly govern the format.
What’s left for the White House to attempt to mold is the performance of the lawyers representing Trump, as well as the administration’s own response to the televised hearings. In particular, the White House is thinking through the process of putting allies on TV during Senate trial days to ensure the administration’s viewpoint gets airtime. During the House impeachment hearings, the president closely tracked how allies defended him on television and took note of cable ratings.
One White House official said both the president and Democrats are highly attuned to the presentation of the Senate trial. “The entire world is living in a visual age,” the official added, lumping House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in that group.
The president’s defense is expected to be led by Cipollone, Sekulow and Cipollone’s two deputies in the office, Michael Purpura and Patrick Philbin, both alums of the George W. Bush White House. While Sekulow appears on TV quite frequently and is accustomed to sparring with anchors in soundbites, the other three lawyers are not known for their appearances on cable.
Having a TV-minded lawyer generally isn’t considered important in an impeachment trial, said Paul McNulty, a former George W. Bush Justice Department deputy attorney general and former senior GOP aide to the House Judiciary Committee during the Clinton impeachment.
“Lawyers that get involved in these things in Washington, the best way they can proceed and have proceeded is by being very workman like, extremely well prepared and very professional and not getting caught up in the emotion of things but really going about the craft of being a legal representative as best as possible,” he said. “In some ways, that makes things in a trial that’s played out in the media seem anti-climatic. The lawyers aren’t acting like TV actors. They’re acting more like lawyers. It’s more mundane than people expect it.”
A former senior Trump adviser added, “I don’t think he needs a TV lawyer. He needs real lawyers. The same lawyers who will present well in an ordinary courtroom situation will present well in an impeachment trial.”
Micromanaging the look and feel of White House-focused events is not anything new for Trump.
“The president views the White House especially as the greatest backdrop on earth — no matter what the event is and no matter its relative significance. Even for more minor events, he wants to use the majesty of the White House to give himself a communications advantage,” said Cliff Sims, the former director of White House message strategy under Trump and author of the memoir “Team of Vipers.”
The president is known to pay close attention to how he looks and how an interview sounds. Once, before an Oval Office address, the president arrived hours earlier to tweak the lighting, according to a photojournalist in the press corps. The president has focused so much on lights at the White House that he asked for bright television lights, used in the East Room since at least the Carter administration, to be removed in favor of softer, natural light and the more flattering glow of chandeliers.
He’s also been known to stop and restart an interview if he’s interrupted, as he did once during an ABC News interview in the Oval Office when his chief of staff Mick Mulvaney coughed during filming.
On impeachment, White House aides and allies argue, Trump has been as fixated on the substance of the House’s two articles of impeachment as the public process. For the Senate trial, he is looking for some flashiness but also a sense of exoneration.
“I do think with testimony, it’s more focused on the content of arguments and that’s more so than on other things,” said a former White House official. “For Trump, the content of arguments are certainly more important than how things look.”
Darren Samuelsohn contributed to this report.