As it was in the first time around, the result for Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial seems to be a foregone conclusion: There is no foreseeable scenario that would have 17 republican senators crossing the aisle to vote to convict the former President for inciting the violent riots on Capital Hill on January 6, 2021. But the House Impeachment Managers are still trying their case, for the eyes of history and the eyes of the American people. The biggest item to catch the eye so far comes in the form of a thirteen and a half-minute video that provides an overview of the events of the day. As House Representative Jamie Raskin played the video on Tuesday, it added to what was already an emotional presentation.
The video shows the escalating events, starting with the “Save America” rally on the White House Ellipse, and ending with pitched battles between mobs and badly outnumbered law enforcement. The imagery plays on the incongruity of seeing the crowds rampaging through the Capital’s sacred spaces, as well as the shock of seeing mobs chanting “USA!” while assaulting the Capitol Police. The overall impression is that the day was far more violent than any of us saw on television at the time. For this post, I want to share the video and call out three lessons that apply to visual storytelling as part of the litigation process.
Here is the video used in the impeachment introduction. By way of warning, it does include a great deal of graphic language and violence.
(You can click here to watch the video on YouTube)
For those who use videos as part of the litigation process — for example: a settlement video, or a “day in the life,” or other demonstrative exhibits — I believe there are three broad takeaways.
1. Minimize the Editorial Content
Because the video is intended to be used by advocates, those who will make the arguments more directly, the video itself does not need to draw those conclusions explicitly. In some ways, showing is better than telling, because people tend to trust those conclusions they reach on their own. For that reason, putting the imagery out there and letting it speak for itself is the more strategic route.
In the impeachment video, you will notice that the only title is “January 6, 2021,” and following that, the developers included no narration, but only a series of simple headings. Linking the comments in Trump’s speech to the crowd’s response, and their subsequent actions, the sequence builds a strong impression of cause and effect.
2. Pay Attention to the Narrative Arc
You aren’t just sharing facts; you are telling a story. To be received as a story, the impeachment video uses sequence and plot, revealed through headings in the form of simple white text on a black screen. Reading through those headings shows the arc of the story:
- “As President Trump continues his speech, a wave of supporters begins marching to the Capitol.”
- “The crowd breaches the protective barricades of the Capitol as Congress meets to count the votes of the Electoral College.”
- “President Trump continues his speech as Members take their seats.”
- “President Trump ends his speech and urges his mob to move toward the Capitol.”
- “Trump’s mob breaches two barriers and can now reach the doors of the Capitol.”
- “Trump’s mob breaches the Capitol.”
- “Vice President Pence is ushered off the Senate Floor.”
- “Capitol Police Officer Eugene Goodman diverts a mob away from Senators and the Vice President.”
- “Speaker Pelosi is ushered off the floor of the House Chamber.”
- “President Trump sends a tweet criticizing Vice President Pence. Insurgents near the Senate Chamber where Senators remain inside.”
- “Insurgents reach the door of the House Chamber. House members remain inside.”
- “Representatives evacuate the floor of the House. Members in the House Gallery are not able to get out until minutes later.”
- “Ashli Babbitt is shot and killed.”
- “Over two hours after insurgents breach the Capitol, president Trump tweets a video.”
- “At least seven people lost their lives, more than 140 law enforcement officers suffered physical injuries, and many more have been severely impacted by their experiences that day.”
- “Four hours after the Capital was breached, Donald Trump tweeted the following:”
As the story ends with President Trump’s tweet, the plot focuses on the escalation, as well as the repeated connection between words and acts. It is also interesting to note that, save for the final two entries, the story is told in the present, rather than the past tense (“The mob breaches,” rather than “the mob breached“). Narrative lore holds that the present tense makes the tale more immediate and engaging.
3. Be Clear About What You’re Foregrounding
One final critical fact about the impeachment video’s narrative arc is that it begins and ends with President Trump’s words on that day. Given that the charge is incitement, that makes sense. His words, and not the separate criminal actions of the rioters, are the focus for the case. Beginning and ending with Trump himself serves to foreground the former President as the central actor in the narrative.
At the start, we see the rally, where the President, safely behind a bullet-proof barrier, is repeating his unsubstantiated claims of a stolen election, and adding, “When you catch someone in a fraud, you’re allowed to go by very different rules,” and “When we fight, we fight like hell. And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.” At the end, we see President Trump’s belated video where he is broadly viewed as congratulating the rioters: “We love you. You’re very special.”
Finally, the video ends with the text that Twitter removed, and viewers are left to read it in silence: “These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been daily & unfairly treated for so long. Go home with love & in peace. Remember this day forever!”
Reasonable people can disagree on whether these words, combined with their surrounding context, rise to the level of the “high crimes and misdemeanors” that the Constitution contemplates. But they are the heart of the case. On Tuesday, a day that was supposed to focus on the somewhat arcane question of whether a president can face an impeachment trial after leaving office, the emotional content of the story told in this video helped to ground and connect the case to the country’s and the lawmakers’ sense of violation and shock.