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Trump impeachment trial: logos, ethos and pathos

February 12, 2021

The prosecution case against Donald Trump in the impeachment trial was compelling TV. We’re so used to American courtroom dramas in which a major part of the action is as much outside the trial as in it. And within the courthouse we’re treated to a constant dance between the facial expressions of the judge, the jury, the defendant, the witnesses and those looking on. All contribute to the dramatic tension.

Yet in the impeachment trial, we were able to focus only on two things: the rhetorical skills of the lawyers and the evidence they presented in the form of video clips and text messages. We were thus presented with the lawyer’s art in its purest form. Yes, it was a performance, but in the manner of a series of musicians performing alone on an unadorned stage, with only the music, the performer and the progression of one piece to the next to command our attention.

It was a masterly performance. As I watched these people, who had built their political careers on the back of their experience as lawyers, I was reminded that the essence of their art has changed little since Aristotle first defined the three basic elements of argument: logos, ethos and pathos.

Logos: the presentation of facts and logic to build the case that Trump had incited the mob, not just on January 6th but through his behaviour and actions in the months and years before. Ethos: the establishment of the speaker’s credibility and their authority to argue that what transpired as the result of Trump’s action and inaction was both illegal and morally wrong. And pathos: the appeal to the emotions of jurors who were presented with the fear, the pain and the injury done to those who found themselves in the path of the mob.

Pathos was enhanced by the fact that both the prosecutors and the jurors were also the victims and intended targets of the mob. So the argument was fortified by elements of the victim statements that are regular features of modern trials for serious crimes. The emotion shown by prosecutors was patently real, from the heart.

Of course, this is not a criminal trail in front of a jury chosen under specific rules designed to ensure fairness and impartiality. It’s a political trial. The jury are not impartial. Fifteen of them were not even present during much of the second day. In a criminal trial their absence would trigger an immediate mistrial, and probably contempt of court penalties for the absentees. Barring a remarkable change of heart by Republican senators, the outcome is a foregone conclusion. These people want to keep their jobs. So Trump will be acquitted.

Even if this is the outcome, you are unlikely to see such a powerful, well-organised and convincing indictment. All the more remarkable for having been put together a mere month from the event.

This is real lawyering. Take a break from all those fictional courthouses, and watch the real professionals in action. But don’t expect similar excellence from the defence. It’s difficult to defend the indefensible.

From → Politics, USA

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