The president’s men and women, under interrogation

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For all the choreography, flattering lighting and artistic make-up that went into the Jan. 6 TV hearings, it’s the video footage of the depositions — of slightly out-of-focus witnesses against a dark background — that ultimately defines these serialized history lessons up until now. now.

The House Select Committee investigating the January 6 attack on the US Capitol began releasing its findings last week. We’ve had two episodes in this story of America’s near-collapse of democracy, with the committee’s vice chair, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), teasing the episodes to come. One of two Republicans on the nine-person committee, Cheney was dressed in shades of blue with her blonde hair shining under the lights and her measured, flawless speech, like a coroner detailing a body’s fatal wounds.

In an attempt to bring order to a mountain of information and create a story arc capable of holding the audience’s attention, the committee turned to the storytelling devices of film and television. Each episode focuses on a particular topic as the series ends with 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 was stolen from Trump. Coming Soon: What Was Trump Hoping To Do? Prevent the orderly transition of power.

New details emerge from Oval Office showdown three days before Jan. 6

Committee members for the most part allowed witnesses and evidence to tell the story. The rioters themselves declare their motivations in the video of the day. The deadly chaos is clear in law enforcement’s body camera video and also in the testimony of Capitol Police Officer Caroline Edwards. And transcripts of depositions reveal Trump’s subterfuges, dysfunctions and antagonisms.

But images of once-powerful men and women who speak clearly and even hesitantly have a special way of embedding themselves in your memory in a special way. The cache of images, the snatches of dialogue, the unsettling grunts and howls of the front lines of the battles at the Capitol make up a mood poem. It’s America. Raw light. Sinister rooms. Mumbled words. Vulgarity. The men and women of the central cast stripped bare.

As a candidate and as president, Trump liked to make his hires based on whether people looked the part; he liked his statesmen, generals, and personal representatives to exude a “central cast” charisma and pleasing appearance to the eye. And now those stars were stuck in videos with as much brilliance as community access cable.

In his deposition, former Trump campaign spokesman Jason Miller answers questions in muffled tones behind a face mask as he sits in a stark, characterless room. The man once tasked with speaking for the voluble Trump needs captions to make his words audible. Ivanka Trump is positioned against an empty marble-patterned wall in shades of gray, from the color of soft toys to the color of saliva. Her heavy makeup only emphasizes that no amount of artifice can improve the dismal facts.

The elite circle of people who spoke to a man proud of his cinematographic sense lost the power of his props, costumes and messages. For an administration that liked nothing more than to surround itself with American flags by the dozens, there were few flags waving in the background as the group of former colleagues, advisers and facilitators were questioned by attorneys from the government right on the facts. Instead of being shrouded in the trappings of patriotism, they were surrounded by all the trappings of scammers, cheaters, and swindlers stuck in an interrogation room. The crafty pugilists were on the defensive.

Bill Barr was a dismissive block of gray

Former Attorney General William P. Barr seemed to relish his role as a star witness, someone willing to describe in blunt and blunt terms how he tried, oh how he tried, to get Trump to face the reality that he lost the election and there was no massive voter corruption. “It was absolute garbage,” Barr said of the charges of major voter fraud in Philadelphia. “Complete nonsense,” he said of the allegations of hacked voting machines. “Crazy stuff,” he said of conspiracy theories about election malfeasance.

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

The video of Barr’s deposition has him sitting at a conference table surrounded by other men and women in suits. He sits back in his ergonomic chair with his legs apart and gestures with an open palm. Barr answers each question at length. He holds the court as if still appalled by the sheer chicanery of those weeks after the election and the others in the room just listen and take notes. In the clips shown during the hearings, no one in the room sympathizes with him. There are no whispers of empathy as he unloads.

Barr, who once served on the Senate Judiciary Committee and wrestled with the meaning of the word “suggest” under questioning by the then senator. Kamala D. Harris, was now delivering a soliloquy about the delusions of the president he once served. Barr only found his voice and the ability to speak his truth in public once the klieg lights of the Trump show faded enough.

Jared Kushner, the former president’s son-in-law and senior adviser on a multitude of topics, initiatives and policies, was relieved of the golden glow that surrounded him then and now, beneath the dim lights and unimpressed questions, his dismissive attitude and glass jaw are more visible.

The committee members are trying mightily to capture the public’s attention with this reconsideration of the event 17 months ago. So many tragedies and horrors have happened since January 6 that it’s fair to wonder how much strength and tolerance people need to look back on that day and all that led up to it. For his part, the former president released a 12-page statement with footnotes in which he says the committee is a waste of time and a distraction – then goes on to argue again for an election he has lost. To repeat the lie that the election was stolen. To stir up mistrust.

The faces on those video screens, those who were once and still Trump’s sidekicks, have the washed-out, murky appearance of figures from the distant past. They look pale and almost ghostly. The screens hang above the row of committee members who all look sharper and a bit more self-consciously groomed than usual with their blowouts, trimmed beards and cropped manes. They are lively and determined.

They sit in front of the American public trying to remind us that the past is not that far away. If we don’t deal with all that led up to January 6, with Trump and his fictions and the rioters, that day simply won’t haunt us. It could well happen again.

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