The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The subtle stagecraft behind the Jan. 6 hearings

The panel probing the Capitol attack is trying to turn its investigative grind into must-see television

James Goldston, former president of ABC News, is helping the committee on its televised hearings. (Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)
Placeholder while article actions load

Bill Stepien’s wife went into labor, and suddenly democracy hung in the balance.

Or at least that’s how it may have seemed on Monday morning of last week for the members and staff of the House select committee probing the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, who had been awaiting the former Trump campaign manager’s arrival for his televised testimony that day.

Timing is everything for the select committee, which is attempting to turn a year-long investigative grind into something like must-see television, spread out over at least a half-dozen live-broadcast hearings, though some conservative critics see it as more of a televised prosecution.

To tell the complicated story of how Donald Trump and his allies tried to overturn the results of the 2020 election means finding a coherent narrative and breaking it down into chapters, with witnesses rolled out in a careful and deliberate chronology. Committee members had counted on using the testimony of Stepien, who had never spoken publicly about the days after the election, to build their Chapter Two: how Trump ignored the warnings of close advisers that there was no credible evidence of widespread fraud to support his flagrant claims of a stolen election.

But just hours before Stepien was expected to testify, word reached the committee that he wouldn’t make it to Capitol Hill. His wife was about to have a baby.

Committee investigators rushed to the small room in the Cannon House Office Building where they have huddled during the hearings with a small production team. They were joined by a man in horn-rimmed glasses and a dark-blue plaid suit. He was James Goldston, the former president of ABC News, whom the committee tapped this spring, relatively late in their process, to help hone a clean, compelling, easy-to-follow structure to present the evidence they’ve collected from over 1,000 interviews and depositions.

The committee announced the day’s hearing would start late, and its staff got to work filling the programming void. An idea to have Stepien’s attorney deliver a statement on his behalf was considered and rejected. Instead, investigators decided to simply present excerpts of Stepien’s videotaped deposition, a compelling-enough story, as it turned out, with the campaign pro describing his dismay as Trump shunned his advice in favor of the wild election-fraud theories whispered to him by Rudy Giuliani and others.

“I didn’t think what was happening was necessarily honest or professional at that point in time,” Stepien said in one clip widely cited in news coverage across the country.

Stepien broke with Trump after 2020 but not all his candidates did

The four hearings that have been broadcast so far — a fifth is scheduled for Thursday afternoon — have been stately affairs, lacking the bombast and grandstanding that dominate most American political performance these days. The witnesses selected to appear live are polite and noncontentious. Some observers, including Trump defenders, have criticized the lack of vigorous cross-examination — Republican leaders opposed the committee’s creation and declined to join it, leaving a mostly Democratic panel — leading to a format that subverts the bipartisan standards of traditional hearings but also eliminates some of the usual broadcast-friendly fireworks.

Yet a subtle stagecraft has lent the hearings an unexpected momentum and pull that has drawn in many viewers, including the former president, who is said to have been monitoring them. The committee has shown shocking, never-before-seen video of violence on Jan 6. There have been emotional climaxes, such as the tearful testimony of a Georgia poll worker who said she was forced to go into hiding after Trump’s allies baselessly accused her of rigging the vote, and jolts of unbleeped vulgarity, including former Attorney General William P. Barr in a video deposition testifying that he told Trump his claims of election fraud were “bulls---.”

Committee members have even deployed some of the tropes of episodic drama to help viewers follow the intricate storyline: flashbacks, flash-forwards, repetition of key scenes, even previews of coming attractions.

“Let me leave you today with one clip to preview what you will see in one of our hearings to come,” Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) said at the close of Day Two.

The tantalizing 15-second snippet of deposition that followed — White House lawyer Eric Herschmann relaying a testy conversation with Trump legal adviser John Eastman (“I said to him, are you out of your effing mind?”) — hit the news cycle like a cherry bomb, sparking a cascade of anticipatory punditry and analysis.

“That’s all her,” a person involved in the hearings said, crediting Cheney with the tactic. “And she’s pretty formidable at it.”

Though the hearings are not as popular as presidential debates, which can draw 60 million to 75 million viewers when simulcast by all the major networks, they are getting far higher ratings than most other congressional hearings, according to Nielsen. Nearly 19 million watched the first prime-time hearing through major broadcast channels on June 9, a viewership roughly on par with Sunday Night Football, while about 11 million watched the first daytime hearing last week.

When preparing to launch the televised hearings, the committee hoped to find a more coherent way to present its findings than what the public saw during the Trump impeachment proceedings or former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s testimony before Congress about his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Even before the committee brought in Goldston, a move that drew vociferous blowback from Republican leaders, its members had begun to sort their copious interview and video evidence into specific themes and along specific timelines that would allow them to emphasize certain points.

The Capitol insurrection hearings and the spectacle of competence

Among the issues they wanted to highlight: What happened on Jan. 6 at the Capitol. What happened in the meetings on Jan. 3 when Trump nearly installed a new attorney general in a bid to overturn the election results. What happened when Trump heard that the mob at the Capitol was threatening to hang Mike Pence. What happened when Trump launched a pressure campaign in Georgia and other key states to overturn the results. And how Trump’s allies have continued to promote baseless election-fraud claims in an attempt to exert control over future races, a slow-rolling insurrection, as committee members see it.

The sheer amount of evidence collected over the past year — emails, texts, thousands of hours of videotaped deposition interviews and film footage from the Jan. 6 attack — with more coming in every day, has been both a boon and a challenge.

Goldston suggested using snippets of deposition videos to recreate particular moments, almost like an oral history. “We almost stumbled into it,” said another person familiar with the committee’s internal deliberations. “We realized we had interviewed everyone in a particular meeting, and could just tell it through their voices.”

To lend clarity to other complicated events, the committee has turned to its own staff investigators to act as narrators, such as lawyer Marcus Childress, who appeared during the first hearing to describe how Trump’s tweets encouraging people to attend the “Stop the Steal” rally were amplified and echoed by far-right extremists on the internet.

With the committee still receiving fresh evidence — just this week, they subpoenaed a British documentary filmmaker who has never-seen footage of Trump from the final weeks of the 2020 campaign — the content and timing of the hearings have remained in constant flux, requiring committee members to pivot on real-time deadlines.

Goldston told colleagues that the shake-up prompted by Stepien’s absence last week was no different from producing a breaking-news special that has to be edited on the fly. It helped that the committee had hours of Stepien’s deposition interview on hand anyway, in case he delivered live testimony that conflicted with what he had told them previously.

But the committee has intentionally resisted jazzing up its video segments with the trappings of a slick, overly dramatized broadcast-news package. While lawmakers fretted privately ahead of the hearings that Goldston’s presentation was lackluster, “it ended up hanging together so cohesively and so right,” said a person involved in the process, “and we haven’t overplayed anything.”

Some of Trump’s allies, who testified reluctantly under subpoena, have expressed a grudging admiration of the production values. “Game respects game,” one figure interviewed by the committee told The Washington Post. This person, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters.

The drama of the televised candor spilling out under oath from inner-circle figures like Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner, Jason Miller, Stepien and Barr has frustrated the former president, according to two of his advisers. He has complained that so many people cooperated on camera, they said. Some of his allies who have testified on camera have tried to convince Trump that they are victims of unflattering editing by the committee, according to a person who spoke with Trump.

For its final hearing, which will be on an as-yet-undetermined date in July, the committee is expected to turn again to testimony from family members on camera along with that of other close aides to focus on the then-president’s actions during the 187 minutes the Capitol was under siege.

Loading...