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How the House Jan. 6 Panel Has Redefined the Congressional Hearing

The typical congressional hearing features a pileup of long-winded statements — what some might consider bloviating. There are harsh partisan exchanges that can obscure the substance at hand. Visual presentations tend to involve an easel. The television audience is largely on C-SPAN.

But the congressional hearing has been utterly, if perhaps temporarily, redefined over the past month by the House select committee investigating President Donald J. Trump’s efforts to hold onto power.

The five sessions the panel has produced so far this month resemble a tightly scripted television series. Each episode has a defined story with a beginning, middle and end. Heroes and villains are clearly identified. Only a few of the committee members speak at any given hearing, and those who do often read from teleprompters.

The answers to the questions are known before they are asked. There is no grandstanding or partisan rancor.

Several weeks ago the committee postponed its third scheduled hearing for a reason far different from those that have typically troubled the tradition-bound elected officials and aides of Capitol Hill: Their writers and producers needed more time to sharpen their scripts and cut better video clips, people involved in the decision said.

When that hearing finally occurred on Thursday, the members — with the cable networks all carrying it live — wove together videos of depositions, audio from interviews and other material to document in detail how Mr. Trump tried to pressure the Justice Department into aiding his schemes.

“For the first time since Trump became president, there is a clarity of message and a clear story that is being told,” said Michael Weisman, a longtime network and cable television producer and executive who oversaw live coverage of sporting, news and entertainment events. “In the past, it was muddy, they were talking over each other, there was playing to the camera and Democrats had a hard time getting their story out. This is different.”

At the end of the day, the committee’s success or failure will hinge primarily on the power of the extensive factual record it has marshaled about Mr. Trump’s unrelenting efforts to reverse his election loss in 2020 and disrupt the peaceful transfer of power. But it has also faced the challenge of presenting its evidence in a way that can break through to the public in a highly polarized environment in which Republicans often get their news from pro-Trump sources.

The committee has been aided by James Goldston, a former head of ABC News, who leads a small team that is sifting through the hours of depositions and vivid, sometimes disturbing footage of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol to put together the presentations.

But the panel’s ability to draw on all that material traces back to a decision its members and investigators made months ago to videotape depositions with witnesses, a move largely unheard-of on Capitol Hill.

Armed with thousands of hours of recorded depositions, the investigators and producers working for the committee have identified just the snippets they need for their storytelling. It is a tactic that keeps the narrative flowing but also has another big benefit: Having the option of using edited video means the committee does not have to call for live testimony from witnesses who could seize the opportunity to help Mr. Trump.

The committee has only been able to pull off its approach because the House Republican leader, Representative Kevin McCarthy, decided last year not to appoint members to the panel. The result is that the only Republicans on the committee, Representatives Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the vice chairwoman, and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, are in sync with the Democrats in judging Mr. Trump to be a danger to democracy.

And while the officials said that it was highly unlikely that another committee could pull off the approach, they said the panel had probably permanently changed things in at least one way: Taped depositions in investigations are likely to become the norm and be relied on heavily by Republicans if they retake control of the House or Senate in November.

“In some sense, this is the first congressional hearing of the 21st century,” said Representative Jamie Raskin, Democrat of Maryland and a member of the committee who is set to lead a presentation at the panel’s next hearing. “We have really made full use out of video, out of tweets and email, and interspersing technology with live statements by the witnesses and members.”

The goal, Mr. Raskin said, has been to create riveting television, with constituents anticipating the next session as if it were a drama series.

“It’s one thing to tell America there was an attempted coup and a violent insurrection,” he said. “It’s another to actually tell the inside story of how these things happened and what the human dimension was all about.”

Allies of Mr. Trump have dismissed the proceedings as a showbiz stunt lacking any balance and ignoring testimony helpful to the former president.

The videos have rankled Mr. Trump, who has long prided himself on his instincts for good television.

“Those losers keep editing video,” Mr. Trump has told associates.

Mr. Trump has closely watched the hearings, expressing surprise at the testimony against him from former administration officials and even his family members, associates said. Mr. Trump has also repeatedly told associates that episodes that former advisers have discussed on video simply “didn’t happen.”

And some witnesses have claimed the committee used their testimony out of context. One Trump adviser, Jason Miller, said the panel unfairly truncated parts of his interview. Mr. Miller has complained that the committee made “selective edits” in an effort “to turn MAGA teammates against each other” and Mr. Trump.

If they wanted to keep the quality of the production high, committee members determined, they only had the staff and bandwidth to put on two hearings a week, a conclusion that led them to delay the hearing on Mr. Trump’s attempts to use the Justice Department to remain in power.

Each hearing has featured a behind-the-scenes element. The committee has played footage of high-profile members of Mr. Trump’s administration, like former Attorney General William P. Barr, speaking candidly as if they were trading war stories. Mr. Barr, with his sport jacket open and flanked by his highly paid lawyers, cursed as he described to investigators how he told Mr. Trump his claims of election fraud were bogus.

The committee then played footage of Mr. Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump speaking on a Zoom-like conference call as she told investigators she respected Mr. Barr and believed him when he publicly pushed back on her father.

The hearings have also introduced new characters who were largely unknown to even the closest followers of the Trump story. Among them has been Eric Herschmann, a White House lawyer in the final days of the administration. Sitting in what appeared like a fancy office with a black baseball bat with the word “Justice” in capital letters on the wall behind him, Mr. Herschmann has relayed expletive-laced anecdotes and rebukes of the lawyers Mr. Trump was using to try to overturn the election.

After the committee was formed last July, the panel took months to begin staffing, first hiring more than a dozen investigators — mostly former federal prosecutors. Their first interviews, such as those of top Justice Department officials, were done using only audio recordings.

As the investigation picked up momentum in the fall of last year, the committee made the critical decision to videotape every interview.

Representative Zoe Lofgren, Democrat of California, spoke up at a meeting of the panel, insisting future interviews be recorded on video with an eye to using clips for public hearings. Among others who pushed for that approach was Tim Heaphy, the committee’s chief investigative counsel, who had never worked on Capitol Hill before.

To persuade witnesses to sit for taped interviews, investigators told them the footage would ensure accuracy and would most likely mean that they would not have to return to testify at a hearing. Over time, the panel got better with its use of video angles and quality; the interview with Mr. Barr, one of the last the committee conducted before public hearings began, showed him talking directly to the camera, and, by extension, the American people.

What resulted, committee officials and aides said, are congressional hearings unlike any that preceded them.

Rather than wasting viewers’ time sitting through witness interviews lasting eight hours, the panel can boil down a person’s testimony to a single incriminating sentence. There is no need to risk sparring with a combative pro-Trump witness when the panel can pluck key statements from a recording.

The hearings also featured graphics and extended montages that can take staff weeks to assemble. For a recent one digging into Mr. Trump’s pressure campaign against his own vice president, staff members scrambled up until the morning of the hearing to pull together a detailed graphic demonstrating how close the mob came to Vice President Mike Pence.

The presentations have also called for discipline on the part of the committee members, most of whom are not heard from in any given hearing under an agreement among them to focus on laying out the evidence in the most compelling way they can.

Representative Pete Aguilar, Democrat of California who led the presentation for the panel’s hearing examining Mr. Trump’s pressure campaign against Mr. Pence, said lawmakers studied past commissions before deciding to take a wholly different approach.

“We felt that the American public wasn’t going to tune in to 10-hour Watergate hearings,” Mr. Aguilar said. “We looked at Watergate; we looked at Iran-contra; we looked at the 9/11 commission. We knew that we had to do something that was built for this century.”

By relying on the footage of witnesses, the committee has avoided having to confront witnesses who have publicly criticized its work. Marc Short, the former chief of staff to Mr. Pence, had said that he had little confidence in the panel’s ability “to provide some sort of impartial analysis” and that by rejecting Mr. McCarthy’s picks for the committee, “it went down more of a political show-trial path.”

Mr. Short had been a crucial witness to Mr. Trump’s attempts to pressure Mr. Pence. But instead of calling Mr. Short to testify publicly, the panel relied on video clips of Mr. Short’s deposition — backed up by live testimony from Greg Jacob, Mr. Pence’s chief counsel — to provide damning details about Mr. Trump’s conduct.

Mr. Raskin said the work of the committee made him realize how much better Congress could do in carrying out its more normal duties.

“So it’s melancholy to reflect on the differences between every other committee I serve on and this one,” he said.

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