There is a certain kind of ritual that has come to define a blockbuster congressional hearing in Washington.
The star witnesses take their seats facing the dias, swamped by photographers. The committee chairman gives a solemn opening statement, followed by a statement from the ranking member of the minority party. There is some bickering over the rules for the hearing, whether it is a sham, sometimes followed by a theatrical effort to postpone the session. Eventually, the star witness gets to speak, and parries questions from the committee members, each party asking either friendly or aggressive questions, depending on the politics. The whole thing often lasts hours and can get somewhat confusing to follow. At the end of the day, newscasts are filled with highlight reels of the can’t miss moments.
But over the last few weeks, the committee investigating the January 6 attack on the US capitol has broken that mold.
Instead of just presenting the facts from their investigation, the committee has generated a clear narrative, teasing how each piece will connect to the next at a future hearing. They have promised and delivered on new sensational details making the hearings can’t miss television. The committee, which is getting advice from a former ABC News executive, have put on hearings that felt more like a Hollywood prestige limited series than a congressional inquiry.
“They have put on the Watergate hearings for the streaming era,” said Norman Eisen, who served as special counsel to the House judiciary committee during Trump’s first impeachment.
The committee has done this in a few key ways. They’ve broken up the hearings into several pieces, keeping each hearing to just a few hours (short by Congress’s standards) and focused on a particular topic. A single member of the committee, or professional staff, has handled the questioning, without interruptions from the opposing party. And the committee has placed a beating heart at the center of its investigation, featuring testimony from police officers, elected officials, and election workers who have all emotionally laid out the severe consequences of Trump’s investigative work.
“What they’ve done brilliantly is use video, kind of the newest techniques of presenting narrative through video, with the most traditional, but powerful approach of having live witnesses. And they’ve blended the two and managed to tell a gripping account of a criminal conspiracy,” said Eisen, who now serves as a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Perhaps most significantly, the committee has made extraordinary use of over a year of investigative work. They frequently play video clips of government officials at the highest levels of government and in Trump’s inner circle detailing what was going on behind the scenes as Trump tried to overturn the election. In many of those clips, the officials have said they knew Trump’s claims about massive fraud were bunk and told him so. Their close ties to Trump make their words all the more damning.
“Video is the top of the pyramid of what gets people’s attention,” said David Litt, a former speechwriter for Barack Obama. “The same set of words, if it’s a quote, it’s less valuable than audio, and audio is less valuable than video. I think they understood that.”
The committee has also done a good job of feeding the appetite for constant new information by carefully meting out and teasing bombshell information, Litt said. During the first impeachment hearing, for example, Liz Cheney said that multiple Republican congressman sought presidential pardons, but didn’t reveal who. Cheney opened another hearing by saying that Rudy Giuliani was “apparently inebriated”, before later playing a clip of Jason Miller, a senior Trump adviser telling investigators that was the case. At one hearing, the committee also teased a video in which Eric Herchmann says he told John Eastman: “I’m going to give you the best free legal advice you’re ever getting in your life: get a great fucking criminal defense lawyer.”
“They went out and they got the receipts and now they’re deploying them in a smart way where there’s this constant drip,” Litt said. “They understand that the drip drip drip is what holds interest in a story. Unfortunately we’ve seen this time and time again where there’s a bombshell, but someone just waits it out because all the shoes drop at once.”
Some of the committee’s biggest success may also be the result of a strategic error by Republicans. After Nancy Pelosi blocked two Republicans who voted to overturn the election from serving on the January 6 committee last year, Kevin McCarthy, the Republican said he wouldn’t appoint any Republicans to the panel. That decision left Trump without any allies on the commission to challenge the committee’s inquiries or throw out distracting questions to muddy the water during hearings. Trump has said in recent days that McCarthy’s decision was a mistake.
Now, the committee has shown a remarkable discipline in its effort to investigate witnesses without having to worry about sideshows. Republican witnesses who might otherwise have been reluctant to testify publicly and face grandstanding from Republican members, might now feel more comfortable coming forward, Litt said.
But even though the committee has succeeded in creating remarkably compelling hearings, will the hearings actually break through? Part of that depends on who the audience is. In one sense, the entire investigation has a very specific audience, the US justice department, which is weighing whether to bring criminal charges against Trump and allies. And it’s difficult to say whether the hearings will sway Attorney General Merrick Garland and other justice department officials one way or the other.
For another audience, the committee’s work may be succeeding. The committee’s work is never going to convince diehard Trump supporters that the election wasn’t stolen, Litt noted. But more than a year and a half after January 6, the committee is forcing the events of January 6 to be at the center of America’s political discourse.
“When I was writing speeches, the important thing I used to say is that you can’t tell people what to think, but you can tell them what to think about,” Litt said. “And a large percentage of the most influential people in American media, business and politics are thinking about what happened on January 6 and why. And whether the people responsible have been held accountable.”