The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The president’s men and women, under interrogation

A clip of Bill Stepien, President Donald Trump’s former campaign manager, is played during a hearing on the Jan. 6 attack. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
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For all of the choreography, flattering lighting and makeup artistry that have gone into the televised Jan. 6 hearings, it’s the video footage of the depositions — slightly blurry witnesses set against grim backdrops — that ultimately define these serialized history lessons so far.

The House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol began to unspool its findings last week. We have had two episodes in this story of the near unraveling of American democracy, with the committee’s vice chairwoman, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), teasing the episodes yet to come. One of two Republicans on the nine-person committee, Cheney has been dressed in shades of blue with her blonde hair glinting under the lights and her speech measured and unflinching, like a coroner detailing a body’s mortal wounds.

In an attempt to bring order to a mountain of information and to create a narrative arc that can hold the public’s attention, the committee turned to the storytelling devices of film and television. Each episode focuses on a particular topic as the series builds to a denouement. First: Why did the hordes descend on the Capitol? Because President Donald Trump told them to. Second: What lie did the hordes believe? That victory in the 2020 election had been stolen from Trump. Coming up: What did Trump hope to do? Prevent the orderly transition of power.

New details emerge of Oval Office confrontation three days before Jan. 6

The members of the committee have mostly allowed the witnesses and the evidence to tell the story. The rioters themselves declare their motives in video from the day. The deadly chaos is clear in the body-camera video of law enforcement and also in the testimony of Capitol Police Officer Caroline Edwards. And the transcripts of the depositions reveal the subterfuge, dysfunction and antagonisms of Trump.

But the images of once powerful men and women speaking plainly and even haltingly have a way of burrowing into your memory in a particular way. The cache of pictures, the snippets of dialogue, the unsettling grunts and howls from the front lines of the fighting at the Capitol make up a mood poem. This is America. Harsh light. Grim rooms. Mumbled words. Vulgarity. The men and women from central casting stripped bare.

As a candidate and as president, Trump liked to make his hires based on whether folks looked the part; he liked his statesmen and generals and personal representatives to exude “central casting” charisma and looks that are easy on the eye. And now these stars were stuck in videos with as much sheen as community access cable.

In his deposition, former Trump campaign spokesman Jason Miller is answering questions in muffled tones from behind a face mask while sitting in a stark, characterless room. The man once charged with speaking for the voluble Trump requires subtitles to make his words discernible. Ivanka Trump is positioned against an empty marble-patterned wall in hues of gray, from the color of lint to the color of saliva. Her heavy makeup only emphasizes that no amount of artifice can improve upon the dismal facts.

The elite circle of people who catered to a man who prided himself on his cinematic acumen has lost the power of its props, its costuming and its messaging. For an administration that loved nothing more than to surround itself with American flags by the dozens, there were few flags waving in the background as the pack of former colleagues, advisers and enablers sat through questioning by just-the-facts government lawyers. Instead of being wrapped in the accoutrements of patriotism, they were surrounded by all the trappings of grifters, cheats and con-men stuck in an interrogation room. The crafty pugilists were on the defensive.

Bill Barr was a disdainful block of gray

Former attorney general William P. Barr seemed to revel in his role as a star witness, someone ready to describe in blunt, foul-mouthed terms how he tried, oh how he tried, to get Trump to face the reality that he’d lost the election and that there was no mass corruption of voters. “That was absolute rubbish,” Barr said of accusations of significant voter fraud in Philadelphia. “Complete nonsense,” he said of claims of hacked voting machines. “Crazy stuff,” he said of the conspiracy theories of election malfeasance.

Barr described Trump as “the weak element on the Republican ticket” in Pennsylvania and that he’d lost that swing state because he was the weaker candidate. And Barr repeated that word, “weaker,” again and again, four times he said it, like it was a sharp knife he was driving into the ego of the former president.

The video of Barr’s deposition has him seated at a conference table surrounded by other men and women in suits. He sits deep in his ergonomic chair with his legs splayed, and he gestures with an open palm. Barr answers each question at length. He holds court as if he’s still dismayed by the sheer chicanery of those weeks after the election and the others in the room simply listen and take notes. In the clips that were shown during the hearings, no one in the room commiserates with him. There are no murmurs of empathy as he unburdens himself.

Barr, who once sat before the Senate Judiciary Committee and struggled with the meaning of the word “suggest” under questioning from then-Sen. Kamala D. Harris, was now delivering a soliloquy on the delusions of the president he once served. Barr only found his voice and the capacity to speak his truth in public once the klieg lights of the Trump show had sufficiently dimmed.

Jared Kushner, the former president’s son-in-law and senior adviser on a multitude of topics, initiatives and policies, has been relieved of the golden glow that once surrounded him and now, under the flat lights and unimpressed questioning, his dismissive demeanor and glass jaw are more visible.

The committee members are trying mightily to capture the attention of the public with this reconsideration of the event of 17 months ago. So many tragedies and horrors have occurred since Jan. 6 that it’s fair to ask how much strength and tolerance people have to revisit that day and all that led up to it. For his part, the former president issued a 12-page statement complete with footnotes in which he declares the committee a waste of time and distraction — and then goes on to re-litigate an election that he lost. To repeat the lie that the election was stolen. To stoke distrust.

The faces on those video screens, those once and still Trump acolytes, have the washed-out, murky appearance of characters from a distant past. They look pale and almost ghostly. The screens hang above the row of committee members who all look crisper and a bit more self-consciously groomed than usual with their blowouts and trimmed beards and clipped manes. They are vivid and determined.

They sit before the American public trying to remind us that the past isn’t so distant. If we don’t deal with all that led to Jan. 6, with Trump and his fictions and the rioters, that day will not simply haunt us. It may well happen again.