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No one can accuse Tuesday’s episode of D.C.’s favorite show of being an easy watch—or bad television.
There was the story of ketchup splattered on the wall of the West Wing’s private dining room, the presumptive result of yet another rage-hurled meal. A President lunging for a steering wheel of one of the most armored vehicles in the hemisphere. An at-best indifference to weapons’ control from the commander in chief, who urged the Secret Service to unplug the magnetometers so that a stream of armed allies could fill in the empty spots for the cameras. And central to all of it: an arrogance emanating from President Donald Trump, who viewed the events of Jan. 6, 2021, as things to be stage managed, framed for the cameras, and in service of his Big Lie that he had won the 2020 election.
But there’s a corollary to that TV mindset: ownership of the control room isn’t permanent, and the next production team can reframe, recast, and reshoot. And that’s precisely what the panel investigating the Jan. 6 crisis did on Tuesday with the shocking testimony from Cassidy Hutchinson. The former senior aide to White House chief of staff Mark Meadows calmly and credibly described the events unfolding in Trump’s orbit that day and in the days leading up to it. With a high level of detail and precision, Hutchinson made clear that Trump seemed to know the crowd gathered for his fabulist speech about election fraud and anti-democratic notions was armed, that he wanted desperately to lead the group to the Capitol, that he was not heeding the advice of his overwhelmed senior aides. The audience also now knows that Trump’s allies appear to be completely comfortable tampering with witnesses.
In short, it was the most transparent accounting of Trump’s tolerance of—if not appetite for—violence in his West Wing. It left even apologists of the former President openly fretting about his reported behavior. It also served as a reminder that Trump may have taught D.C. a thing or two about how to properly turn a droll government hearing into something rivaling a Housewives marathon.
Trump of all people knows that even the most carefully considered ideas can come undone once the cameras start rolling. It’s why the most important spot for any reality show is the casting couch—be it for a celebrity competition or a Cabinet. Trump may not have meant for his plot to turn into a violent melee at the Capitol, but the testimony to this point certainly suggests he was aware of what elements he had recruited. When what was billed as a televised rally to “stop the steal” and to pressure Congress not to certify Joe Biden’s win started to spiral, it was clear Trump was no longer in the producer’s chair. He couldn’t even direct his Secret Service detail to ferry him to the next shoot, that one at the Capitol. The production took on a life of its own, and Trump seemed happy—to borrow an old Bravo marketing phrase—to “watch what happens.”
For the panel leading the investigation, Tuesday was merely the latest installment of must-see-TV, a rewrite of how most congressional committees conduct hearings. The typical playbook is an alternating chance for both parties to have their members use their limited time to tick through many versions of the same question, a numbingly boring process that often reveals little new information. The Jan. 6 committee, however, has smartly picked one or two members to handle the questioning at each hearing, and those members mostly stick to prepared scripts. Unlike typical hearings, there have been no fishing expeditions; because Hutchinson and those who came before her participated in private interviews and depositions before testifying in public, there were few surprises for the lawmakers in the know. They had evidence ready to cue, and the investigators had the questions and narrative carefully paced.
The hearings may change few minds about what happened on Jan. 6 and who—if anyone—deserves responsibility. Polling shows a clear division by party, and the audience for the televised hearings skews toward Democrats. Trump’s true believers aren’t going to be swayed by the likes of Hutchinson; they still think Trump should be sitting in the White House and Biden was wrongly installed.
Still, the public service of the committee is matched only by its ability to carefully stage a history-making series of accounting. Lawmakers have been shrewdly using previews and teasers to keep audiences tuning in and staying there. For instance, lawmakers suggested on June 9 at their first public hearing that some Republicans had sought pardons from Trump, but the officials waited until June 23 to name names. They scheduled a surprise hearing for Tuesday but cryptically didn’t announce Hutchinson’s name to go with it, adding to the who-dunnit tone. And the lawmakers on the committee have adopted a stay-tuned posture as they appear on cable news teasing seemingly new revelations daily. They may be laying the groundwork to prosecute Trump, but they aren’t above adopting his Apprentice-honed tactics to keep audiences coming back.
Trump rode celebrity and reality television to the White House in 2016. His four years in the presidency was a daily affront of breaking news, feigned outrage, and shock-jock rhetoric. It was the Reality Show Presidency, and it was almost impossible to look away. It was as if the Congressional Budget Office and the Kardashians staged the most unlikely of collaborations.
Then voters canceled the Trump show, but not before some savvy members of Congress had come to understand the value of his writers’ room approach to government. That’s why the Jan. 6 committee has been so effective: it’s illuminating and considered in equal measure. Unlike the Trump presidency, this isn’t a vamping exercise or leave-it-to-chance experiment. There’s a narrative arc, characters are brought onto the stage, and the villain is pretty clearly defined—and mostly by Republicans. The only cliffhanger is whether there will be any consequences for Trump, or if he is able to renew for another season, premiering the reboot in time for the 2024 sweeps.
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