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Graphic Capitol Riot Video Reveals A True American Horror Story


Impeachment trials of American presidents are rare. They are almost by definition grave and serious.

But the proceeding against former President Donald J. Trump was likely the first to include a parental advisory for graphic violence.

Beginning Wednesday’s presentation, which included never-before-seen video of the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol, Representative Jamie Raskin, the lead House impeachment manager, began with a warning: “We do urge parents and teachers to exercise close review of what young people are watching here, and please watch along with them if you’re allowing them to watch.”

The chilling footage wasn’t much easier for adults — for anyone, really, who wants to believe that America is a secure, stable democracy. It was horrible, but it was also horribly necessary.

In a brutal and deftly edited presentation, the managers presented the attack on the election’s certification as a found-footage horror movie.

Sometimes the horror was in seeing how awful and vicious the day was. Security and body camera footage showed police officers defending the building engaged in what could have been siege scenes from “Game of Thrones” — grisly, grunting, intimate violence. On emergency calls, officers screamed out calls for support. “We’ve lost the line!” “The crowd is using munitions against us!” “Multiple Capitol injuries!”

Sometimes the horror was in seeing how much worse it could have been. New security camera footage showed Eugene Goodman, the Capitol Police officer hailed for his heroism during the assault, rushing down a hall and turning around Senator Mitt Romney — an outspoken Trump critic and plausible target of the mob — from walking down a hall toward attackers.

Another silent video: Former Vice President Mike Pence is hustled down a stairwell with his family, as we’re reminded that mob members had chanted for his death.

Another: Staffers of Speaker Nancy Pelosi rush to barricade themselves in an office; minutes later the hallway swarms with attackers, one of whom tries to smash down the door before giving up.

Through it all, an onscreen graphic showed the mob as a red dot inching into the heart of the Capitol. Over and over, we may have been a short sprint, a piece of wood, a wrong turn away from a massacre.

We saw the attack the day it happened, of course. We saw more of it in the days after. But we’d never seen it so completely, so sweepingly.

What the impeachment managers put together wasn’t simply a deluge of shocking clips. It was a complex, edited narrative that moved us from one vantage point to another — Mr. Trump, the mob, the police, the fleeing lawmakers and staffers.

The daylong arguments also had dramatic structure, including cliffhanger-like act breaks as the trial went into recesses. Representative Madeleine Dean concluded the early afternoon segment with the image of mob members pounding at the chamber door; the next section was punctuated with the sight and sound of a screaming officer being crushed in a doorway.

But there was also a larger, serial arc that laid out, over the course of months, the charge that Mr. Trump had primed his followers to believe he could lose the election only if it were rigged; that he cheered on violence in his name; that he publicized the Jan. 6 rally and targeted politicians — including his own vice president — in a series of increasingly furious tweets.

All of this was an effort to use the tools of television — imagery, emotion, montage — to build a case against a president who was made by and obsessed with TV.

After all, the managers need to argue not just that the Jan. 6 attack was horrible, but that Mr. Trump egged it on. And his associates have talked about how he has a habit of laying his wishes between the lines. His former lawyer Michael Cohen has testified that Mr. Trump “speaks in a code” when he gives orders.

One thing that makes montage such a powerful visual device is its ability to make just these sorts of nonliteral connections between the words a speaker says and the message his audience hears.

So the video shifted between points of view like a TV thriller. We were with Mr. Trump at the podium as he urged his supporters to march to the Capitol. Then we saw his words from a hand-held video shot in the crowd, where people called out, “Let’s take the Capitol!” We saw him close up, urging the crowd to “fight like hell,” then saw mobs overwhelming and cursing out police. A Jan. 6 tweet from Mr. Trump assailing Mr. Pence is pictured next to social-media video of someone at the riot with a bullhorn, announcing that very tweet.

Of course, this narrative didn’t only have a TV audience; there were also 100 senators, who were both jurors in the trial and victims in the story. We couldn’t see their response because of an agreement that cameras not be allowed to show them during the proceedings. If senators were disregarding the evidence (CNN reported that some were reading books during the presentation), they didn’t want to be seen on TV doing it.

But an earlier video reel on Tuesday seemed to rattle the former president’s lawyers. Rather than rebut it, they attacked it as manipulation. “They don’t need to show you movies to show you that the riot happened here,” said the defense lawyer David Schoen. Another hint of the videos’ power: The conservative Fox News network cut away from Wednesday’s presentation.

All this has been potent stuff for network TV, including the sort of profanities that could get a prime-time drama in trouble with the F.C.C. (Broadcasters put explicit-content labels on the videos.)

It was hard to look at; I would not blame anyone for watching this harrowing presentation through their fingers. But ultimately this was real life, not a movie. And we must be willing to see it in uncomfortable detail if we don’t want to live through the sequel.




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