The House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 riot is using former President Donald Trump‘s showmanship playbook to try to scuttle his political future.
The panel is using surprise hearings, an array of video clips and promises of a “big reveal” as they labor to portray Mr. Trump as the architect of the 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Democrats and their GOP allies even kicked off their work with a prime-time TV hearing in a bid for primo ratings, bringing in retired ABC News executive James Goldston to produce the show.
Intentional or not, the tactics smack of the made-for-TV politics that Mr. Trump mastered beginning with descent on Trump Tower’s golden escalator in 2015 to kick off a presidential campaign that rewrote the rules for political communication.
“These days, it is all about the narrative. You need to have a good storyline that connects the dots in meaningful ways,” said Darrell West, director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution.
Mr. Trump and the committee have shared several style points, even if they’re at loggerheads in every other way:
• Mr. Trump pushed to hold his COVID-19 briefings late in the day in 2020, realizing it was important to draw viewers after work hours.
The Jan. 6 committee held its first hearing from 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. Eastern, drawing wall-to-wall network coverage and nearly 19 million viewers.
• Mr. Trump loved a reality TV-worthy surprise, from an unannounced drop-in at the 2016 Republican National Convention to an impromptu visit to the demilitarized zone to step onto North Korean soil with Kim Jong-un. His red-hot tweets announced major firings and reset policy without warning.
The Jan. 6 committee said it wouldn’t reconvene until July, only to schedule a surprise hearing last week. The star witness, Cassidy Hutchinson, wasn’t some expert or pundit. She had a front-row seat for the Jan. 6 attack, heightening the suspense before she dropped some bombshells from the witness chair.
• Mr. Trump in 2020 had a penchant for airing video clips of political opponents who set aside their enmity and praised his performance on the coronavirus crisis.
The Jan. 6 panel flipped the script. Democrats sat on the dais while former Attorney General William P. Barr — not exactly a friend to Rep. Adam B. Schiff, a key panel member — explained to committee staff that Mr. Trump’s claims of election fraud were “bulls—-.”
• Mr. Trump fixated on President Biden’s son Hunter during the 2020 campaign, hoping unflattering reports about the younger Biden would reflect badly on his father. One of the first people to appear on-screen in the hearings was Mr. Trump’s elder daughter and former White House aide, Ivanka Trump, who told the committee she accepted Mr. Barr’s view that election fraud claims didn’t amount to much.
The surprise hearing with Ms. Hutchinson — an aide to former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows — focused on White House knowledge the Jan. 6 protests could turn ugly. She recalled Mr. Meadows saying that “things might get real, real bad on Jan. 6.”
She outlined key revelations, alleging Mr. Trump said he wanted to take away security-screening devices at a White House Ellipse rally that preceded the Capitol attack because “they’re not here to hurt me.” She also said Mr. Trump tried to steer his motorcade toward the Capitol after his speech and that, one time, White House staff had to clean ketchup off the wall after Mr. Trump erupted in rage over post-election matters.
Ms. Hutchinson’s damning and sudden testimony seemed to stem from changes behind the scenes, rather than blunt attempts to stir public interest. She retained new counsel and the committee didn’t want to waste time getting her live testimony.
Outside experts said they don’t think the committee is purposefully adopting Trump-like tactics, though they are operating in a frenetic media landscape that the ex-president leveraged with aplomb.
“I think the committee understands that it is operating in a fractured media environment and has staged its hearings masterfully to break through to the public,” said Asher Hildebrand, a professor of public policy at Duke University. “Dramatic narratives and suspense have been a key part of this. I wouldn’t call it ‘Trumpian’ — I’d just call it smart.”
Laurence Tribe, a Harvard Law School professor who frequently comments on the Jan. 6 hearing, said he sees “nothing Trumpian” in the committee’s decision to hold a surprise hearing.
He added: “There’d be nothing wrong if the Democrats learned more lessons from the most effective communicators in the Party of Trump — I hesitate to call it the Republican Party these days.”
Mr. Trump made his mark on the political scene by breaking norms and, quite purposefully, shaking up the Washington establishment. He leveraged Twitter to speak directly to the American people — until the platform expelled him — and seemed to see fights within his administration as a way to build press coverage instead of a sign of poor management.
His political foes and parts of the mainstream media chafed at his style but it won him legions of faithful supporters and near-constant media coverage.
Even today, the ex-president who left the White House 18 months ago generates as many headlines as Mr. Biden on some days, flummoxing Democrats who worry their messages and achievements aren’t resonating ahead of the midterm elections.
Former Trump aides say that no matter how hard Democrats push, the American public will be more concerned about kitchen table issues like inflation and gas prices, especially during the summer months.
“I wouldn’t say Democrats are employing anything particularly novel this week, but they are looking to reset headed into the July 4 break by framing the hearings in a renewed sense of urgency capable of breaking through to their target audiences,” said Michael Bars, a former Trump senior communications adviser. “Democrats can double-down on communications basics, but the events of January 2021 aren’t top of mind, and if anything they waited too long.”