When Republicans and Democrats engaged in six hours of contentious debate over impeaching President Donald Trump last month, each party repeated phrases, a USA TODAY analysis found. Those talking points probably foreshadowed the case the parties will lay out during the Senate trial.
Republicans criticized what they called the partisan nature of the proceedings. The party referred to “the other side” 30 times and used the words “sham” and “charade.”
Democrats focused on their case against Trump. They used the phrase “above the law” 75 times and referred to the “oath of office” nearly 50.
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 refer to “the United States” or “the president” in some fashion.
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 Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y. “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 vague or arguing that 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 Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La.
Republicans 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.” 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 as having no choice but to impeach the president, repeating phrases such as “above the law” and “checks and balances.”
Almost every Democratic 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 Trump’s credibility and undermines his ability to win reelection.”
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. 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 10 phrases 630 times. The top 10 phrases among Republicans totaled 456.
Jennifer Grygiel, an assistant professor of communication at Syracuse University who specializes in memes, said the top phrases among Democrats “are the types of words that you would use if someone committed some kind of wrongdoing.”
Grygiel said the heavy use of the phrase “duly elected president” was an attempt “to invoke the fact that the president was legitimately elected, 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 probably set the stage for the way both parties will try to influence public opinion during the trial.
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. People will be trying to shape how they feel about these outcomes.”
Contributing: Dak Le and Mike Stucka