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Analysis: Trump's infamous obsession with TV helped define Jan. 6 too

Late on the afternoon of Jan. 6, 2021, then President Donald Trump affectionately addressed insurrectionists at the U.S. Capitol from the White House. The U.S. House Select Committee investigating the siege says the then president failed to act for hours - instead "gleefully" watching TV.
MANDEL NGAN
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AFP via Getty Images
Late on the afternoon of Jan. 6, 2021, then President Donald Trump affectionately addressed insurrectionists at the U.S. Capitol from the White House. The U.S. House Select Committee investigating the siege says the then president failed to act for hours - instead "gleefully" watching TV.

Updated July 21, 2022 at 10:18 AM ET

For more than three hours on Jan. 6, 2021, then-President Donald Trump took no known public actions to halt the insurrectionists who laid siege to the U.S. Capitol to block certification of President Biden's election win.

Trump did not call out the National Guard. He did not stride to the East Room for a live address to the nation urging acceptance of the results. Nor did he tweet out denunciations of the assault on the seat of the nation's legislative branch.

Instead, two mild tweets calling for "peaceful" actions were sent from his account โ€” the first an hour after protesters overwhelmed police at the base of the Capitol's rear steps. And the sitting president did one other thing, according to U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger: Trump watched TV.

The Illinois representative, like Trump, a Republican, will be one of two lawmakers leading Thursday night's hearing of the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack. He says the panel has filled in the blanks of what Trump did during 187 minutes of inaction, which Kinzinger's colleagues have called a refusal to act and a "dereliction of duty."

"Gleefully" watching television as Congress came under assault

"The president didn't do very much but gleefully watch television during this time frame," Kinzinger told CBS's Margaret Brennan on Face The Nation on Sunday. On Thursday morning, Kingzinger provided a tease of tonight's hearings. In a tweet, he provided video clips from witnesses - including a vice presidential national security adviser, Trump's former executive assistant, and the White House counsel - testifying that Trump had spent the afternoon in the White House dining room, parked in front of the TV.

Of course.

A media critic once characterized Trump as a self-invention, but a true child of television: The real estate developer, celebrity tabloid fodder, best-selling author, relentless name-merchandiser, reality-show star and birther-conspiracy enthusiast kindled his presidential ambitions in television news green rooms. He gave them life under the klieg lights in air-conditioned studios with care and tending from ratings-chasing executives and seemingly credulous TV talk show hosts.

Based on a mastery of the rhythms of cable and morning TV talk shows, Trump projected a conviction that he could credibly opine on national and world events and ultimately control them. His fascination with the medium yielded to outrage that the crowds at his inauguration in January 2017 did not appear, on television, to match those of President Barack Obama โ€” leading to false claims on his presidency's first weekend that were easily disproved and ushered in what proved to be an administration of antagonism.

In his book, "Audience of One," The New York Times TV critic James Poniewozik wrote that when Trump didn't like what he saw on TV, he would speak again โ€” making more news โ€” because he was inherently newsworthy, first as a candidate, then as president, defining what would turn up on the air.

The idea that Trump remained silent in crisis is itself remarkable

Members of the Trump White House contorted themselves, the truth and the nation's policies to fit what he wanted to see beamed and streamed into the world's living rooms and smartphones. Trump was TV and he was bigger than TV, all at the same time.

The idea Trump remained silent at a time of crisis centered on โ€” and caused by โ€” Trump himself is therefore remarkable.

For Sherlock Holmes, the solution to the theft of a champion horse was found in "the curious instance of the dog in the night-time."

The dog did nothing in the nighttime, came the retort.

"That was the curious instance," Holmes triumphantly replied. The dog had failed to bark.

Now, live, and on national television, as Trump stews out of office and plots a possible return, it is the committee that is commanding attention. It was no accident that it held its first big-ticket hearing earlier this summer in television prime time. Thursday night's hearing will be prime time programming as well, across the major broadcast and cable news networks โ€” excepting for Fox News. And a majority of Americans are paying attention, according to a new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll.

Television shaped Trump's political instincts

While CNN and MSNBC has enjoyed a spike in viewers, Fox has endured steep ratings declines during the hearings; on the first night, Fox shunted live coverage over to its much less watched sister channel, Fox Business Network, while stars Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity appealed to their audiences loyal to Trump by denouncing the hearings, most of which hadn't happened yet. Fox News viewers will be able to watch the same lineup of the network's stars tonight unimpeded by the live hearings, according to a network spokeswoman. Once more, Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum will anchor its coverage on Fox Business and through alternate sister platforms.

The committee's careful, relentless retelling of the story of Jan. 6, unspooling themed installments in each hearing, has shed light on overarching plots and minor obsessions, and the primary roles that image, media and TV played in shaping Trump's instincts.

Take magnetometers, those hulking metal detectors that blanket official Washington.

After his 2017 inauguration, Trump's press secretary, Sean Spicer, blamed the introduction of magnetometers as a security screening measure, along with new fences, for keeping "hundreds of thousands of people" away. According to the Secret Service, they were not used in 2017. (And, oddly, they had already been deployed in previous inaugurations, according to the Congressional Research Service.)

More ominously, behind the curtained tenting ahead of his address to his loyal and raucous supporters on the National Mall on Jan. 6, Trump was told some of these fans were seriously armed, according to the witness testimony aired by the committee. And he was told his supporters weren't packing the area in front of his stage because they did not want to be stopped by federal officers at the magnetometers, which would detect the weapons.

Trump bellowed that he wanted the detection devices gone and the MAGA faithful brought forward. "I don't effing care that they have weapons," former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson testified that Trump said. "They're not here to hurt me. Take the effing mags away."

So Trump cast aside security concerns for himself, his vice president, the speaker of the U.S. House and law enforcement officers, we learned at these televised sessions. And why? Because Trump wanted the crowds he was exhorting to appear overwhelming to the viewer.

An aide testifies Trump was "very concerned about the shot" of crowds โ€” for the TV cameras

"When we were in the offstage announce area tent behind the stage, he was very concerned about the shot, meaning the photograph that we would get, because the rally space wasn't full," testified Hutchinson, the right-hand woman to Trump's final White House chief of staff on Jan. 6. (The former president tweeted a denial and cast her as a failed job-seeker out of office.)

While she spoke of "the photograph," the camera that Trump cares about most โ€” and the "shot" he was almost certainly talking about โ€” belongs to the television networks. The Washington Post reports that the committee may present outtakes from Trump as he taped a video appeal telling the insurrectionists to go home. In the version that was released, Trump repeated his lie that the election had been stolen and wrapped them in love.

Trump has chafed at what he's seen from the hearings, complaining that his GOP defenders are nowhere to be found. (House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy refused to empanel an outside and independent commission, while House Speaker Nancy Pelosi refused to seat two Republicans who themselves propounded false claims about the 2020 election.) He's right that there's no cross-examination. This is not a trial. It's a case.

Trump's allies at Fox News and elsewhere have largely downplayed and ignored the hearings. You're not hearing them called fake news anymore, however, so much as old news โ€” a tacit concession that they are driven by facts.

That is because the hearings have lived up to their billing as "made for TV." Not because they have proved melodramatic, though there's plenty of drama. But because they are proving impossible to ignore.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.