The typical congressional hearing contains an accumulation of long-winded statements – which some might find bloated. There are hard partisan exchanges that can obscure the content. Visual presentations tend to involve an ass. The television audience is largely on C-SPAN.
But the congressional hearing has been utterly, albeit temporarily, redefined in the past month by the House selection committee examining President Donald J. Trump’s attempts to hold onto power.
The five sessions the panel has produced so far this month resemble a tightly scripted television series. Each episode has a specific story with a beginning, middle and end. Heroes and villains are clearly identified. Only a few committee members speak at any given hearing, and those who do often read from teleprompters.
The answers to the questions are known before they are asked. There is no boasting or partisan rancor.
Several weeks ago, the committee postponed its third scheduled hearing for a very different reason than the one that usually bothered Capitol Hill’s tradition-bound elected officials and aides: their writers and producers needed more time to fine-tune their scripts and make better video clips, people involved in the decision said.
When that hearing finally took place on Thursday, members — as the cable networks carried it all live — weaved together video of testimony, audio of interviews, and other material to document in detail how Mr. Trump attempted to pressure the Justice Department into his help plan.
“For the first time since Trump became president, there is a clear message and a clear story being told,” said Michael Weisman, a longtime network and cable television producer and executive who oversaw the live coverage of sports, news and entertainment events. . † “It used to be muddy, they talked at the same time, they played in front of the camera and the Democrats struggled to get their story out. This is different.”
Ultimately, the commission’s success or failure will depend primarily on the strength of the comprehensive factual record it has gathered on Mr Trump’s relentless efforts to reverse his 2020 election loss and disrupt the peaceful transfer of power. . But it also faces the challenge of presenting its evidence in a way that can break through to the public in a highly polarized environment in which Republicans often get their news from pro-Trump sources.
The committee is assisted by James Goldston, a former head of ABC News, who leads a small team that searches the hour-long testimony and vivid, sometimes disturbing footage of the January 6, 2021 Capitol attack. the presentations.
But the panel’s ability to tap into all that material dates back to a decision its members and investigators made months ago to videotape testimonies of witnesses, a move largely unheard of on Capitol Hill.
Armed with thousands of hours of recorded statements, the researchers and producers working for the commission have identified exactly the snippets they need to tell their story. It’s a tactic that keeps the story going, but it also has another big advantage: The ability to use edited video means the commission doesn’t have to ask for live testimony from witnesses who could seize the opportunity to attack Mr Trump. to assist.
The committee only managed to get its act together because Republican House leader, Representative Kevin McCarthy, decided last year not to appoint members to the panel. As a result, the only Republicans on the committee, Representatives Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the vice chair, and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, are in sync with Democrats in assessing Mr. Trump as a threat to democracy.
And while the officials said it was highly unlikely that another committee could meet the approach, they said the panel had likely changed things permanently in at least one way: taped statements in investigations are likely to become the norm and there will be will be heavily relied upon by Republicans if they regain control of the House or Senate in November.
“In a sense, this is the first congressional hearing of the 21st century,” said Maryland Democrat Jamie Raskin and a member of the committee who will lead a presentation at the panel’s next hearing. “We really made full use of video, tweets and email, and technology interspersed with live statements from the witnesses and members.”
The goal, Mr Raskin said, was to create immersive television, with voters anticipating the next session as if it were a drama series.
“It’s one thing to tell America that there has been an attempted coup and a violent insurgency,” he said. “It’s another thing to tell the inner story of how these things happened and what the human dimension is all about.”
Trump’s allies have dismissed the proceedings as a showbiz stunt without any balance and ignoring testimonials helpful to the former president.
The videos hurt Mr Trump, who has long been proud of his instinct for good television.
“Those losers keep editing video,” Mr Trump has told his associates.
Mr Trump has been closely monitoring the hearings and expressed surprise at the testimony against him from former administration officials and even his family members, officials said. Trump has also repeatedly told his associates that episodes that former advisers discussed on video simply “didn’t happen.”
And some witnesses have claimed that the commission used their testimony out of context. A Trump adviser, Jason Miller, told the panel: wrongly abbreviated parts of his interview† Mr. Miller has complained that the commission made “selective edits” in an effort to “turn MAGA teammates against each other” and Mr. Trump.
If they wanted to maintain the quality of production, the committee members determined, they had the staff and bandwidth to hold two hearings a week, a conclusion that led them to cancel the hearing on Mr Trump’s efforts to the Department of Justice to use. to stay in power.
Each hearing included a behind-the-scenes look. The commission has played footage of high-profile members of Mr. Trump’s administration, such as former Attorney General William P. Barr, speaking candidly as if they were exchanging war stories. Barr, with his sports jacket open and flanked by his well-paid lawyers, cursed as he described to investigators how he told Mr Trump his allegations of voter fraud were false.
The commission then played back footage of Mr. Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump speaking on a Zoom-like conference call, telling investigators she respected and believed Mr Barr when he publicly pushed her father back.
The hearings also introduced new characters largely unknown to even close followers of the Trump story. Among them was Eric Herschmann, a White House attorney in the final days of the administration. Sitting in what appeared to be a posh office with a black baseball bat with the word “Justice” in capital letters on the wall behind him, Mr. Herschmann relayed forceful anecdotes and reprimands from the lawyers Trump used to try to nullify the election.
Key Revelations from the January 6 Hearings
After the commission was formed last July, it took months for the panel to begin staffing, first hiring more than a dozen investigators, mostly former federal prosecutors. Their first interviews, like those of top Justice Department officials, were done using only audio recordings.
As the investigation gained momentum in the fall of last year, the committee made the crucial decision to videotape every interview.
California Democrat Zoe Lofgren, speaking at a panel meeting, urged that future interviews be videotaped for the purpose of using clips for public hearings. Among others pushing for that approach was Tim Heaphy, the commission’s chief investigative adviser, who had never worked on Capitol Hill before.
To convince witnesses to sit for taped interviews, researchers told them the footage would guarantee accuracy and most likely mean they wouldn’t have to come back to testify at a hearing. Over time, the panel got better with the use of video angles and quality; the interview with Mr. Barr, one of the last the committee conducted before the public hearings began, showed him directly into the camera and, by extension, the American people.
What resulted, committee officials and aides said, are congressional hearings unlike any before.
Rather than wasting viewers’ time on eight hours of witness hearings, the panel can condense a person’s testimony into a single incriminating sentence. There’s no need to spar with a combative pro-Trump witness when the panel can pluck key statements from a recording.
The hearings also include graphics and elaborate montages that can take staff weeks to complete. For a recent who delved into Mr Trump’s press campaign against his own Vice President, employees scrambled until the morning of the hearing to put together a detailed image showing how close the crowd is to Vice President Mike. Penny came.
The presentations also called for discipline on the part of the committee members, most of whom are not heard at any particular hearing under an agreement between them to focus on presenting the evidence in the most convincing manner.
Representative Pete Aguilar, a California Democrat who led the presentation for the panel hearing examining Mr Trump’s press campaign against Mr Pence, said lawmakers studied past committees before deciding on an entirely different approach.
“We felt that the American public would not listen to the 10-hour Watergate hearings,” said Mr. aguilar. “We looked at Watergate; we looked at Iran-Contra; we looked at the 9/11 commission. We knew we had to do something that was built for this century.”
By relying on the images of witnesses, the committee has avoided confronting witnesses who have publicly criticized its work. Marc Short, Mr. Pence’s former chief of staff, had said he had little faith in the panel’s ability “to provide some sort of unbiased analysis” and that by rejecting Mr McCarthy’s choices for the committee. “It went down even more. of a political show trial.”
Mr. Short had been a pivotal witness to Mr. Trump’s efforts to pressure Mr. Pence. But instead of Mr. Calling Short to testify publicly, the panel relied on video clips of Mr. Short’s statement – supported by live testimony from Greg Jacob, Mr. Pence – to provide damning details about Mr. Trump.
Mr. Raskin said the committee’s work made him realize how much better Congress could do in carrying out its more normal duties.
“So it’s melancholy to think about the differences between every other committee I’m on and this one,” he said.