The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump called Jan. 6 participants ‘smart,’ filmmaker says

Ivanka Trump and President Donald Trump are seen on the screen as the House Jan. 6 committee holds a hearing June 16, 2022. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Former president Donald Trump called those who participated in the demonstrations and Capitol attack on Jan. 6, 2021, “smart” during a defiant interview last spring, according to a documentary filmmaker who was granted extensive access to Trump and his family and is now cooperating with the House committee investigating the insurrection.

“A very small portion as you know went down to the Capitol, and then a very small portion of them went in. But I will tell you, they were angry from the standpoint of what happened in the election because they’re smart, and they see. And they saw what happened. I believe that that was a big part of what happened on Jan. 6,” he said to British filmmaker Alex Holder in a March interview, according to a film clip reviewed by The Washington Post.

Trump said it was a “sad day” but did not offer a repudiation of the events, according to the footage reviewed by The Post and to the filmmaker.

Holder met with Jan. 6 committee investigators in a closed-door meeting Thursday and provided more than 10 hours of footage to the panel from interviews with Trump, his adult children, former vice president Mike Pence and footage of the Capitol attack itself. Holder said he was surprised he had not been called sooner but received a subpoena last week from the committee.

Holder was interviewed for about two hours but declined to specify what the committee staff asked him “out of respect for an ongoing investigation,” his spokeswoman said.

Holder said he interviewed Trump three times in December 2020, March 2021 and May 2021 for the documentary, called “Unprecedented” and slated to be released this summer. The film has been bought by Discovery Plus, a representative for the company said.

The film was meant to chronicle Trump’s reelection campaign and his relationship with his adult children, he said. Holder said he was not present for any of the planning of the Jan. 6 events and did not have private details about its provenance.

In his December interview, which lasted 45 minutes at the Diplomatic Reception Room in the White House, the filmmaker said Trump was in a foul mood and was obsessed with the 2020 election, looking for ways to stay in office and talking about how he needed to pressure Georgia officials and the Supreme Court. “He had barricaded himself in the White House,” he said. “He wasn’t talking to the press or doing anything. … He said, we have to get some good judges who can help us.”

The documentary filmmaker said Trump never conceded he lost the election — and repeated his same claims of fraud and protestations that he won the election in private as he did in public. Trump also did not raise the date of Jan. 6 with him in his first meeting, and the president’s children and Pence similarly never mentioned the date before the attack happened, he said.

In March at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club in South Florida, Holder said Trump was defiant and did not accept any responsibility for Jan. 6 and remained obsessed with the election, even moving the discussion away from softer questions about his family. He talked extensively about his crowd size that day, bragging it was the biggest crowd he had ever attracted.

“I would bring up other topics like his children, and he would talk about that, but he always wanted to come back to the election,” Holder said.

A spokesman for Trump did not comment.

Holder said Trump’s children praised their father for waging a battle over the election in December interviews. “They really echoed their father,” he said. “You could tell they really admired their father.”

After Jan. 6, he said the Trump family declined to talk about the topic at all, as did Pence, who sat for an interview with the documentarian a few days after Jan. 6. “And we will make that clear in the film,” he said. A person familiar with the project said it was not pitched as a project about Jan. 6 but instead about the Trump family and Trump as a father.

Holder said he was present as Pence received an email about the 25th Amendment to the Constitution — which lays out procedures for removing a president from office — but he declined to describe Pence’s reaction.

“He didn’t seem mad,” Holder said. “The people around him were nervous. He told us he wasn’t as good of a golfer as Trump. He seemed optimistic about the future of America.”

Holder said that he believed the committee would be interested in six hours of footage he shot Jan. 6, when he was not at the White House but with the rioters on Capitol Hill. He was not with Trump or Pence that day, he said.

Holder said the family wanted to participate in the documentary as a “legacy project” and that he chatted with family members before the election but with Trump only after the election. He had gotten to know associates of the family, Holder said, through a project he was shooting in the Middle East. A person familiar with the matter said he was introduced to the Trump family by Jason Greenblatt, a Middle East envoy in the Trump administration.

“They all thought they were going to win,” he said.

He was given access to Air Force One, the White House and campaign events, he said, and some in his crew were closer in proximity to Trump at times “than his own Secret Service agents.”

Multiple campaign officials said they had no idea Holder was filming a documentary. “I think there was no question the family did sort of keep us away from the campaign. We had some interaction with them but not a lot,” he said.

The documentarian said Trump never conceded in private that he had lost. “I had the opinion prior to meeting him that he actually didn’t really believe that the election was rigged,” he said. “Absolutely not. He is absolutely convinced.”

He also said that in the final interview, the filmmaker was finally able to get Trump to talk about his children and topics other than the election. Trump railed about getting kicked off social media.

“I showed him on my iPad a clip of his kids campaigning for him — it was a really interesting moment. He said, ‘They all have their own base, but it’s really part of my base,’” Holder said. “There were elements of him being proud of his kids.”

He said Trump also expressed a surprising amount of honesty over his coronavirus diagnosis. “He expressed being scared over covid, and how he was sick, and how he had friends who died,” Holder said.

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