Skip to content

The Revelations Will Be Televised

How the January 6 hearings became prestige TV

When Representative Bennie Thompson gaveled in the public hearings of the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the United States Capitol this summer, he pronounced that the nine members of the panel, though hailing from “a diversity of communities from all over the United States, rural areas and cities, East Coast, West Coast, and the heartland,” were bound together in common purpose by their oath of office. That oath, the gray-bearded eminence continued, was “to defend the United States Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” In the nineteen hours and forty minutes of televisual spectacle that followed, the weight of the oath rarely went unremarked upon for long.      

Vice chair Liz Cheney, whose war criminal father was elected vice president despite losing the national popular vote, and who represents a state with fewer residents than Memphis but the same number of senators as California, averred that “in our country we don’t swear an oath to an individual or a political party, we take our oath to defend the United States Constitution.” When taken by the president, this sacred vow, as Representative Adam Schiff effused, confers transformative, “awesome” power, which is “even more awesome when it is handed on peacefully.” Representative Adam Kinzinger queued a supercut of “what attorneys general, Democrats and Republicans alike, have said about upholding their oath to the Constitution” that featured both Jeff Sessions and Loretta Lynch. But perhaps the most passionate defense of the oath of office came not from a member of the Select Committee but Rusty Bowers, the Republican speaker of Arizona’s House of Representatives, who captivated viewers during the fourth hearing with his heroic tale of rebuffing Donald Trump’s request that he sign off on a scheme to send fake electors to Washington by saying, “You’re asking me to do something against my oath and I will not break my oath.” His reasons were not so much patriotic as pious. As the former missionary went on to explain, glasses sliding down his aquiline nose, “It is a tenet of my faith that the Constitution is divinely inspired.”

This deification of the oath of office was far from a mere rhetorical pose. Though the Select Committee wields the ability to subpoena evidence and compel testimony, it does not have any prosecutorial power, meaning that the more than one thousand interviews it has conducted and one hundred forty thousand-plus documents it has gathered are useful only insofar as they can be used to tell a compelling story to the American public. To that end, the committee abandoned the mind-numbing, day-long witness marathons that form the bulk of congressional investigatory history in favor of a sequence of eight hearings packaged like a limited documentary TV series, with both the premiere and season finale airing in primetime across all the major networks.

A seven-step plan carried out across three intersecting rings? You’d need a clockwork orrery to model the conspiracy. 

That formula proved to be a smash: nearly eighteen million people tuned into the July finale, a comparable number to the viewership of a typical Sunday Night Football broadcast. Emboldened by the public’s embrace of the inquiry, Cheney teased that the cast would return for a limited run in the fall, which kicks off this week. While the exact substance of these new hearings is unknown, they’re likely to resemble what came before: select witness testimonies, edited down to the juiciest bits, with the rest of the run-time—typically no longer than a baseball game—given over to capsule videos walking through a particular facet of the investigation, evening news-style graphics of documents and text messages, and slick 3D renderings of the Capitol Building and White House, respectively populated by swarming red orbs of rioters and the ghostly apparitions of Trump aides.

Naturally, these flourishes were not the handiwork of your typical D.C. apparatchik. To craft a hearing format that would resonate with twenty-first century viewers, the Select Committee hired James Goldston, a former president of ABC News, best known for contemporizing Nightline after the retirement of Ted Koppel, and for elevating David Muir to replace Diane Sawyer on World News Tonight. The Washington Post reported it was Goldstone who suggested injecting narrative momentum by cutting together a succession of snippets from video depositions “to recreate particular moments, almost like an oral history.” Not that the committee didn’t play a heavy hand in packaging the hearings to draw the highest number of eyeballs. Cheney, especially, became a devotee of the cliffhanger, using her closing statement in the second hearing to drop a fifteen second clip of the White House lawyer Eric Herschmann describing how he responded to a call from John Eastman: “I said to him, ‘Are you out of your [fucking] mind?’” Only by watching the next hearing would the viewer be able to learn the full context for the exchange—or get another opportunity to study Herschmann’s art collection, including a painting of a panda titled Wild Thing, also featured in Fifty Shades of Grey.

Even the eight-episode arc reflected the Select Committee’s embrace of the prestige docuseries form. In segmenting its findings, the panel worked to reframe the chaotic closing weeks of the Trump Administration into what Cheney called “a sophisticated, seven-part plan to overturn the presidential election,” to which, in the penultimate hearing, Representative Jamie Raskin appended another schema: after Trump tweeted his call to supporters to come to Washington on the day Congress would certify the election results, “three rings of interwoven attack were now operating toward January 6.” Trump himself was the inside ring, the “members of domestic, violent, extremist groups” who were plotting to “storm, invade, and occupy the Capitol” occupied the middle ring, and, forming the outer ring, “a large and angry crowd, the political force that Trump considered both the touchstone and the measure of his political power.” A seven-step plan carried out across three intersecting rings? You’d need a clockwork orrery to model the conspiracy. Or maybe just some nifty CGI.

However confounding the Select Committee’s diagramming of January 6 proved, the mere attempt to bring order to Trump’s shambolic campaign to remain in power distinguished these hearings from the largely unstructured investigations that preceded them. The most recent of that tradition was the inquiry into the 2012 attack on the American diplomatic facility in Benghazi, a grandiose plot to undercut Hillary Clinton’s presidential ambitions that, despite lasting more than two years and involving over one hundred witnesses (including Clinton herself, who was interrogated for eleven hours); thirty-three public hearings; and the issuing of a final, eight-hundred-page report, produced the grand total of one meaningful revelation: Clinton had used a private email server while she was secretary of state.

The decision by the Benghazi yahoos to restrict their scope to hour after ponderous hour of live questioning was far from novel. The Iran-Contra hearings of 1987 followed a similar blueprint, also shared by the Watergate investigation, with lead investigator Mark Belnick grilling Secretary of State George Schultz in much the same manner that Nixon chief of staff H.R. Haldeman was interrogated by Samuel Dash. But unlike the Watergate hearings, Iran-Contra failed to sway public opinion against the administration under scrutiny, largely because of the performance of one man: Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North.

North’s hijacking of the Iran-Contra hearings was no aberration.

As an aide to Ronald Reagan’s national security council, North had personally met with Panamanian Dictator Manuel Noriega to discuss directing the money generated from covertly selling arms to Iran to Nicaragua’s right-wing Contras. After the broad outlines of the program came to light, North emptied out the five-drawer safe in his office, and, as his impeccably permed assistant Fawn Hall testified, an orgy of evidence tampering followed, with Hall feeding more than a dozen pages at a time into a shredder as she worked through a stack of documents a foot-and-a-half tall. One month after Hall detailed the brazen cover-up, her boss took the stand, and whatever stench of nefarious intent had accrued around him in the intervening weeks was instantaneously dispelled. North arrived at the Capitol in full military regalia, his chest heavy with Vietnam combat medals; when he stood to be sworn in, the committee chamber echoed with the sound of camera shutters as the media sought to frame a perfect shot of the Marine.

North stated that the reason he had shredded documents was because they “were no longer relevant” and went on to suggest that he had merely been operating according to standard procedure, testifying:

Part of a covert operation is to offer plausible deniability of the association of the government of the United States with the activity, part of it is to deceive our adversaries, part of it is to ensure those people who are at great peril carrying out those activities are not further endangered. All of those are good and sufficient reasons to destroy documents, and that’s why the government buys shredders by the tens and dozens and gives them to people running covert operations.

The combination of North’s Mission Impossible-style justification and his physical presentation created an escape hatch for conservatives: that the aide who had been unceremoniously canned by Reagan weeks after the first story on Iran-Contra broke had claimed the Fifth when directly asked if he had worked to support the Contras through arm sales to Iran was entirely beside the point. His testimony established a new narrative framework for understanding the events, not as a grotesque and illegal overreach by the National Security Council, but as a sexy espionage operation undertaken by god-fearing patriots.

North’s hijacking of the Iran-Contra hearings was no aberration. The most famous derailment in the history of the format came during Joseph McCarthy’s 1954 probe of communist sympathizers in the Army, when chief counsel Joseph Welch responded to the senator’s badgering about the membership of one of his aides to a communist-aligned group in law school by crying, “Let us not assassinate this lad further, senator. You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” In the black-and-white footage of the exchange, McCarthy looks away from Welch, his balding head retracting into his hunched shoulders like a chastened schoolboy.

Even the 1947 House Un-American Activities Committee Hearings on the influence of communists in Hollywood, despite being remembered as one of the most egregious abuses of congressional power in history, did not necessarily go as planned. In those days, Congress was a far livelier institution, and the crowd that packed into the Capitol to gawk at celebrities testifying under oath erupted into applause after Robert Taylor declared, “If I had my way, they’d all be sent back to Russia” and jeered John Howard Lawson when he objected to questions about his political beliefs. But the mob’s rowdiness was a double-edged sword. When the screenwriter Dalton Trumbo appeared in his signature horn-rim glasses and wispy mustache, he cavalierly answered the panel’s questions with some of his own, including “I understand that members of the press have been given an alleged communist party card belonging to me. Is that true?” An incensed congressman replied, “You’re not asking the questions!” and the crowd tittered when Trumbo snarked, “I was.” The exchange continued:

“Are you or have you ever been a member of the communist party?”

“I believe I have the right to be confronted with any evidence that supports this question. I should like to see what you have.”

“Oh, well you would?”

When Trumbo responded simply, “Yes,” he was rewarded by a wave of laughter, which his inquisitor sought to drown out by yelling, “Well you will pretty soon!” As the uproar continued, a gavel banged. “The witness is excused.”

Sparring of this sort is exactly what the January 6 hearings were designed to prevent. The panel’s key testimony came from Cassidy Hutchinson, an aide to Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, who, despite previously sitting for four depositions before agreeing to appear in public, was billed by the press as a “surprise witness” at a last-minute hearing in late June—a “very special episode,” in the words of New York Times television critic James Poniewozik. Dispensing with fulsome introductions, Representative Thompson began with a tease: “I won’t get into a lot of detail about Ms. Hutchinson’s testimony, I’ll allow her words to speak for themselves, and I hope everyone at home will listen very closely.”

Hutchinson delivered on the hype, relaying that President Trump said he wanted the security guards at his rally to stop using magnetometers because “I don’t [fucking] care that they have weapons, they’re not here to hurt me,” as well as White House Counsel Pat Cipollone’s remark that “we’re going to get charged with every crime imaginable” if the president’s aides allowed him to go to the Capitol. She even described Trump’s predilection for throwing fine china at the wall when he got angry and proffered a particularly lurid story of Trump lunging for the driver of his limo when his Secret Service detail refused to let him accompany his supporters down to the National Mall.

While Oliver North and Dalton Trumbo’s testimony served as prisms that cast the committee that subpoenaed them in newly unfavorable light, the January 6 Committee was careful to keep their star witness on script. Hutchinson’s live appearance was interlaced with her more detailed recollections in previously filmed depositions, allowing the committee to ensure the most memorable moment of the proceedings was one they had planned and executed themselves: Hutchinson describing how, in early January, she found Mark Meadows in his office, on the couch, distraught: “He didn’t look up from his phone and said something to the effect of, ‘There’s a lot going on, Cass. But I don’t know. Things might get real, real bad on January 6.’”

Hutchinson’s implication that Trump’s right-hand man was prepared for the chaos that would unfold on January 6 set the stage for the season finale, which covered the fateful “187 minutes” of White House inaction while Trump loyalists invaded the Capitol. For all the damning material that was detailed in that session, it will be best remembered for the footage obtained of Senator Josh Hawley sprinting through the halls of Congress to escape the mob he had previously egged on with an upthrust fist. Within minutes, Hawley’s run had been set to the themes from Benny Hill and Chariots of Fire, as well as RuPaul’s “Sissy that Walk.”

The memefication of the hearing underlined an unfortunate truth of the Select Committee’s inquiry: while it succeeded in unveiling a lot of previously undisclosed (and unflattering) White House activities, its purpose was not to uncover a secret but rather to frame and mediate an event that we all lived through in real time less than two years ago. Unlike with Watergate or Iran-Contra, the crime being investigated was so obvious and overwhelming that the president was impeached less than a week after it happened. Much of the conspiracy the Select Committee sought to unravel was conducted in plain sight, as the panel itself acknowledged by playing tape of Trump pressuring Pence in a number of public speeches as well as portions of his call with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, the full audio of which was posted online by NBC the day after it happened.

Lacking in all this norm humping was an honest reckoning with how the American system of government itself had produced the requisite conditions for its own dissolution. 

The Select Committee, at least, was wise enough to know its own limitations—hence the couching of its investigation not in the law, but rather the normative standard embodied in the oath of office. In the final hearing this July, Deputy National Security Advisor Matt Pottinger described his decision to resign on January 6 as being spurred by Trump’s violation of his oath “to support and defend the Constitution . . . to protect the Constitution, to bare true faith and allegiance to the Constitution. And it is a sacred oath. It’s an oath we take before our families, we take that oath before God.” Minutes later, Adam Kinzinger used his closing statement to make the terms of engagement clear: “Laws are just words on paper,” he said. “They mean nothing without public servants dedicated to the rule of law and who are held accountable by a public that believes oaths matter more than party tribalism or the cheap thrill of scoring political points.”

Lacking in all this norm humping was an honest reckoning with how the American system of government itself had produced the requisite conditions for its own dissolution. Trump, after all, was only able to ascend to the presidency in the first place because minoritarian rule is enshrined in the Constitution’s sacrosanct pages. But then, addressing the foundational tilt of our politics toward land over people was hardly the ambit of the Select Committee; instead, the investigators contented themselves with putting on a good show.

Which isn’t to say that the first round of hearings was particularly effective. In a paradox fitting the accelerating high-resolution decay of American life, the Hollywood production values, tight scripting, and narrative oomph of the January 6 hearings failed to create a seismic political shock akin to the Watergate or HUAC investigations, despite the comparatively dull presentations of those sessions. Accepting that the congressional hearing, as a form, lacks the material impact it once did, the panel was happy to settle for becoming fodder for TV critics casting about for a must-watch series while everyone waited for Netflix to release more episodes of Stranger Things. Liz Cheney, in particular, embraced her role of MC to the spectacle, concluding the first season with the issuance of one of her patented cliffhangers: “In the course of these hearings, we have received new evidence and new witnesses have bravely stepped forward . . . Doors have opened, new subpoenas have been issued, and the dam has begun to break.”

In the nine weeks since that pronouncement, what few details have emerged about the committee’s continuing work suggest that, rather than pushing into new territory, the investigators are mostly occupied with fleshing out the narrative they’ve already created. A Pennsylvania activist who organized buses to Trump’s “Stop the Steal” rally was served with a subpoena after finishing his sixty-day prison term for trespassing at the Capitol; meanwhile, congressional staffers traveled to Copenhagen to view footage from a Danish documentarian who spent January 6 with prince of the conservative dark arts Roger Stone. In a late August appearance on Meet the Press, the best tease Adam Kinzinger could muster was “I think there’s going to be a lot of depth that we’re able to build.” On Saturday, Adam Schiff seemed to admit that the committee had run its course, telling a Punchbowl News reporter that Wednesday’s session will “likely be our last hearing.”

Though the January 6 committee may have posted an early lead in the thunderous horse race of post-presidential Trumpian legal tormentors, this sort of nibbling around the edges of scandalous behavior simply won’t cut it. In early August, the Department of Justice surged into pole position by authorizing the FBI to raid Mar-a-Lago to recover reems of classified documents Trump had refused to return to the National Archives. However sensational a presentation Bennie, Liz, and the gang are able to cook up, as long as Google searches for “Espionage Act” are outpacing “oath,” it’s hard to imagine the Select Committee recapturing the nation’s attention for long. After all, viewers may find it challenging to get sufficiently incensed about past violations of political norms while they’re waiting for the first ever indictment of a former president to drop.