Five takeaways from the Trump Jan. 6 documentary ‘Unprecedented’
The hotly anticipated documentary comprising hours of behind-the-scenes video of former President Trump, his family and associates in the final days and aftermath of the 2020 election has already been reviewed by the congressional committee investigating the Capitol insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021.
Now, it’s available to the public.
“Unprecedented,” a three-part docuseries by British filmmaker Alex Holder, was released Sunday morning by Discovery+ and features new interviews with Trump and his children specifically about Jan. 6, and video from the president’s rally on the Ellipse just before his supporters stormed the Capitol. It provides greater definition to events already seared into the nation’s consciousness, showing viewers that Trump’s attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 election, for all the surreptitiousness of his allies’ “Stop the Steal” efforts, occurred in plain sight — and began long before the morning of Jan. 6.
Here are five takeaways from the film:
Trump unsurprisingly clings to the ‘Big Lie,’ is unapologetic about Jan. 6
In the final 15 minutes of the third episode, “The Kindling,” Holder asks Trump during an interview conducted before he left the White House to talk about the events of Jan. 6. Trump agreed, nodding brusquely. But his comments showed little remorse for the violence of the insurrection, besides calling it “a sad day.” Almost immediately, Trump snapped back to making excuses for those who stormed the Capitol, explaining away their behavior while ignoring his own role in encouraging them.
“The people went to Washington primarily because they were angry with an election that they think was rigged,” he said.
The clip comes just minutes after video showing Trump’s constant espousal of the lie that incited the “Stop the Steal” mob: his election night claims that, “Frankly, we did win this election”; the parroting of that claim by Trump’s attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani, his children, lawyers and allies in conservative media; Donald Trump Jr.’s emphatic claim to a crowd that his father would fight to overturn the election “to the death”; and Trump’s Jan. 6 speech imploring supporters to march to the Capitol, challenging Vice President Mike Pence to “do the right thing” and halt the certification of then-Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s electoral win.
“A very small portion, as you know, went down to the Capitol and then a very small portion of them went in,” Trump continued in the documentary, moments after video showing thousands of his supporters smashing windows, fighting with police and occupying the Capitol building. “But I will tell you, they were angry from the standpoint of what happened in the election and because they’re smart and they see and they saw what happened. And I believe that was a big part of what happened on Jan. 6.”
In what appears to be a later interview at Trump’s residence, Holder asked him what he learned from the 2020 election.
“I think I learned you have to be very untrusting,” he said. “I thought it would be a straight-up election and it wasn’t.”
Trump’s children Ivanka, Don Jr. and Eric didn’t want to talk about Jan. 6
As Holder’s documentary kept a strong focus on which of Trump’s three eldest children are best equipped to inherit his political crown, sons Donald Jr. and Eric and daughter Ivanka — called the “favorite” of the siblings — had nothing but praise for their father throughout the film. But none of the president’s progeny mustered his bluster in defense of what happened Jan. 6.
In an interview with Holder at some point between election day and Jan. 6, 2021, Ivanka Trump claimed that her father was only interested in counting all the votes in the 2020 election — even though, as another commentator in the documentary points out, Trump’s lawyers actually worked to halt vote counts in the states where his lead had eroded as more ballots were processed.
“As the president has said, every single vote needs to be counted and needs to be heard. And he campaigned for the voiceless,” she said.
But in interviews after the Capitol insurrection, none of the Trump children who participated in the film had anything to say about it.
“Let’s skip the 6th,” Eric Trump said.
Ivanka and Donald Trump Jr. appeared to have said even less — Holder inserted text over video of their interviews explaining that they also declined to discuss the events of that day.
Even Pence, who has since tiptoed away from Trump in what could be an effort to launch his own potential 2024 presidential bid, opted against talking about the insurrection that threatened his own safety as rioters chanted that they wanted to hang him for refusing to submit to the president’s pressure campaign.
Trump’s devoted base won’t break from him
In capturing spontaneous moments from Trump campaign appearances, the documentary preserves for the annals of history the seemingly unbreakable bond the former president and his children have with supporters.
In one scene, an older man chokes up as he tells the former president’s daughter Tiffany Trump he loves her father because of his family values. In another scene, a woman who shows up hours early for one of Trump’s final 2020 rallies says she “can’t get a boyfriend because I love him so much,” and referred to Biden as “Joe Bin Laden... because he’s a terrorist.” And an owner of a Georgia pizzeria said he was star-struck in meeting Ivanka Trump, who popped by during the 2020 campaign: “I felt like I was meeting a princess.”
Thursday’s hearing will be the first in prime time since June 9. A lawyer for former Trump aide Stephen K. Bannon says he may testify.
The snapshots, sprinkled throughout the three episodes, serve as a reminder that no matter the revelations about the president’s effort to overturn the election and his actions during the violent Capitol insurrection, it may be all but impossible to crack Trump’s political base given the emotional investment of supporters in his message of American greatness.
Like everything Trump, it’s in the eye of the beholder
Had the events of Jan. 6, 2021, not transpired, the documentary might have turned out like a Trump production, given the wealth of praiseful commentary from the president’s children and scenes from rallies and events where Trump and his surrogates were warmly received. Holder leaves it to others to correct the record and proffer opinions, with the counter-narrative coming from the same place it did throughout Trump’s four years in office: Washington journalists, Trump biographers and political observers whose comments offer a reality check on and explanations for the president’s actions.
The dramatic soundtrack and cinematic images of the film convey a grandeur befitting, depending on one’s view, the former president and his family or the gravity of his ignominious place in American history. Trump’s most ardent supporters might enjoy the trip down memory lane and anecdotes from the president’s children. At the same time, Trump’s detractors might interpret Holder’s soaring score and the framing of his subjects as dynastic quasi-royalty as an indication the filmmaker is in on a joke.
It’s also possible that the soft focus on the Trump family throughout the documentary was Holder’s effort to hold his pro-Trump viewers long enough for them to absorb and perhaps contemplate anew the final scenes of the series, which depict the mayhem and violence the former president brought to bear on Jan. 6.
But for the new interviews on the subject of Jan. 6 and the scenes of the riot, the bulk of the three episodes offers a glossy treatment of well-worn Trump story lines and themes: the former president’s lifelong obsession with image; the unusual dynamic of his three children constantly vying for his attention and affection; his deep-seated fear of losing and need to explain away setbacks with claims that situations were rigged against him; and his ability to convince others of his self-serving narratives.
Presented as prelude to the events of Jan. 6, the documentary shows that the violence that day was almost inevitable, the self-fulfilling prophecy of a provocateur who always put his own interests first and went to any lengths to preserve his image.
Will any of this help the Jan. 6 committee?
Though Holder’s film could be a boon for Discovery+ given the ongoing fascination with Trump, the adoration and outrage he inspires and the historical importance of the events depicted, the docuseries might ultimately be of less consequence to the House Jan. 6 select committee in its ongoing hearings on the Capitol insurrection.
Holder includes numerous scenes — which were featured in the documentary trailer that leaked to Politico’s Playbook newsletter a few weeks ago — of Trump and his children asking how they looked on camera before their interviews began. There’s Ivanka with a stylist brushing her long blond hair. There’s the president instructing an aide to remove a small table and water glass at his side, then telling the aide to bring it back. Perhaps these moments of consciousness and preening tell us something relevant about the artifice at the heart of Trumpism, but for those who covered the Trump presidency, it’s hardly something new.
It’s unclear if or how the few scenes related to Jan. 6 contained in the third episode of the docuseries will provide the committee investigating the insurrection with any new revelations. There is no bombshell in the nearly three hours of the series on par with former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson’s testimony about how Trump demanded on Jan. 6 that magnetometers be removed from his rally site on the Ellipse so that more armed supporters would be allowed in — revealing that he knew about the potential for violence and that it wouldn’t be directed at him as he egged the crowd on. Holder’s cameras were at that rally, but didn’t capture that critical backstage conversation.
But the documentary still could shape people’s perceptions about that day. Holder’s film may serve as a video companion to the Jan. 6 hearings unfolding on Capitol Hill, presenting further evidence of what’s already clear.
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