As President Joe Biden, the January 6th Committee and a number of longtime conservatives sound the alarm over the threat to American democracy, the latest Frontline, debuting on Tuesday on PBS, examines the warning signs.
The two-hour season premiere, Lies, Politics and Democracy, digs into Donald Trump’s influence and grip over the Republican party. The focus isn’t so much on the former president as it is the decisions that GOP leaders made that enabled his rise to power.
The documentary offers a timeline of acquiescence, from the 2016 primary season to the present day, as so many in the party have aligned with Trump and his false claim that the 2020 presidential election was rigged and stolen. A reminder of how much Trump shattered norms comes at the start of the film, with clips of presidential election concession speeches going back to the 1930s, the obvious exception being the last occupant of the White House.
Frontline focuses on figures like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who ultimately supported Trump even after he attacked his wife’s looks and his father’s background, as well as House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC). On the floor of the Senate on the night of January 6th, Graham said to “count me out.” That spring, he was golfing with Trump.
Among those interviewed for the film are J. Michael Luttig, the former federal judge who testified before the January 6th Committee, and Alyssa Farah, the former White House communications director and new regular on The View. Farah offers an anecdote that Trump privately admitted that he lost the 2020 election.
Other voices come from former senator Jeff Flake and former representative Mark Sanford, two Republicans who found themselves on the outs after they dared to criticize Trump, as well as January 6th Committee member Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), who chose not to seek reelection after voting for Trump’s second impeachment. Journalists Tim Alberta and Jelani Cobb collaborated with the producers on the project.
The project — which will be available on the PBS video app and pbs.org/frontline — is supported by Preserving Democracy, a public media initiative from The WNET Group. Kirk directed the project, and produced along with Mike Wiser and Vanessa Fica.
Deadline chatted with Kirk recently about how the project came together and what he sees as its potential impact.
DEADLINE: First off, why do the project now, as opposed to a year ago or a year from now?
MICHAEL KIRK: It seemed like [the right time] with the midterms looming, and Trump’s hat almost in the ring for the 2024 presidential run, or at least he’s considering it, the January 6 Committee [preparing its findings]. So there were a lot of political reasons that were happening, and yet they all were affected dramatically by recent history starting, especially with January 6. And if you’re going to explain January 6, especially the role of the Republicans and Donald Trump, you have to go back into history and watch them enable and accept and collaborate with him, so that what happens after January 6 is just as important as what happens before.
DEADLINE: Are you ready for the pushback? Trump supporters are bound to say ‘Oh, well, that’s just the media. That’s just liberal PBS, public broadcasting.’
KIRK: You have to expect in such a polarized nation that at least 40% or 50% of the people may not like the message and therefore not like the messenger. It’s sort of the cost of doing business nowadays. We were also thinking about history when we made this film, not just the elections in the fall, but 10 years from now. If it is the precipice I think it is, if we are staring into a kind of political abyss, we thought we’d better lay down what we thought, given all of our resources and the number of films we’ve made about Donald Trump and the Trump years. We’ve seen all the eddies and waterfalls and crevices, every bad thing that’s happened during the last four or five or six years, and made films about them. So we thought, ‘Well, let’s pull it all together into one bigger idea,’ which is the effect it has had on democracy and where are we right now.
DEADLINE: In the documentary Alyssa Farah says that one mistake people make is that it is Trump who drives the base. Actually, the base is what drives him. [Making the point, the documentary features the moment in 2016 when Ted Cruz getting booed at the Republican Convention because he would not endorse Trump at that moment].
KIRK: Once you decide to make Ted Cruz a player, as sort of representative of a kind of Republican that existed before Donald Trump … you realize he had identified the base before Trump. But boy by then by that convention, to sit there in our editing room and watch it happen to Cruz and feel the power and the energy. It wasn’t even hard to edit. It was fish in a barrel time with all the angry Republicans. There was the base just rising up right before your eyes, and you didn’t really know it at the time. You didn’t know what that was, you knew what it was now. When you look at it now, you say, ‘Oh my God, there’s the MAGA party.
I think Trump, for all that he is and all that he isn’t, even he understood the power. He understood the force, but I don’t think he knew exactly how to lead them. I think they have a mind of their own. And I think a lot of what Trump did was to appeal, and to hope to appeal, to a group of people that were obviously his people, as he says, but had a mind and a mindset of their own. And I think that’s something that Republican leadership didn’t know until right around January 6, when they saw what happened and all of a sudden, there they were. And they realized the position they put themselves and their party in.
DEADLINE: Another anecdote Farah had is of going in to the Oval Office after the 2020 election, and Trump said, ‘Can you believe I lost?’ She has shared that on CNN. Do you know if she shared that with the January 6 committee, because that has actually been a point, of whether Trump actually believed some of these election claims?
KIRK: She’s been interviewed extensively by the committee, and I have to believe that if she said it to us and said it on CNN, she has said she said it to them. And I have a feeling also that she’s not the only one.
DEADLINE: To what extent did you reach out to the Trump team? If there is one Trump loyalist in the film, it is Corey Lewandowski.
KIRK: We’ve done a lot of the Trump people in all of our films. We’ve done Steve Bannon, all the usual spokespeople and some not. And some said no. Not the usual crowd said no, but some that we really wanted. General [John] Kelly, [Mark] Meadows. For obvious reasons, they’re testifying and they didn’t want to do it. And in a funny way, we’ve heard from them. You know what they’re going to say. And my test was if we thought [it would add to the project] let’s do it, and if they tell the truth, we’ll use it, and if they don’t tell the truth, we won’t use it. Because we know what the truth is. … So if they if they don’t tell us the truth, the film is about lying, and there’s been plenty of that. Let’s try to avoid that. And let’s go up a little higher. Let’s go to 30,000 feet or 20,000 feet and not get down into the the mudslinging again.
DEADLINE: Did you try for Trump?
KIRK: No. We never we never do that. Even when we make The Choice [the Frontline presidential candidate profiles] we never do that. We interviewed a lot of people who interviewed him. He let everybody come down to Mar-a-Lago and sit with him, including Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns from the New York Times. Jonathan Karl, whose book is wonderful and I think he’s wonderful in the film. All of them got their moments with Trump after January 6th, but basically he didn’t give anybody anything that was really usable. I mean, he just feels no compunction to tell the truth. And I thought it brought a kind of circus element to it if we did it, and I and I eschew that as much as possible. You sort of know what Trump’s gonna say, and once he comes in, then you feel you got to bring him in a lot more. When he comes in, he takes your eyes and mind off the subject. So we tried to stay true to our story, and the story didn’t involve him.
DEADLINE: What about what about figures like Ted Cruz in Lindsey Graham and Kevin McCarthy? To what extent did you did you reach out to them?
KIRK: We’ve done Lindsey Graham before. We’ve never had any luck with Cruz, although we did get his campaign manager, Jeff Roe, which is about as close to Cruz. McCarthy, we’ve never had any luck getting him. We didn’t have any luck getting him this time. Some people know better. They know that we’re not coming in for a quick soundbite. We sort of say, ‘You got to give us an hour, or 40 minutes to an hour at least.’ And we’re coming with a full story narrative. Press people always shy away from that.
DEADLINE: What I hear all the time from Republicans is no, no, no, it’s the Democrats that are a threat to democracy. Look at canceled culture. Look at Critical Race Theory. That’s a threat to democracy.
KIRK: Bannon, Steve Miller, Trump, Trump’s children. Jim Jordan, the Freedom Caucus people — it is their playbook. Come back as hard as possible. Don’t address the issues. Don’t answer questions about what you’ve done. And as much as possible, throw mud on the enemy. In such a partisan environment, it’s not surprising that that happens.
And it’s a partisan Democratic Party. There’s a lot going on inside that party that is challenging, not necessarily democracy, but certainly on the approach of the Democrats to what they’d like to get done. But they don’t they don’t have a president who acts like Trump. They didn’t have January 6th. We can see how they reacted to this fundamental attack on democracy on January 6, and we can see how the Republicans and the members of Congress reacted. We talked to people who study democracy and the problems with democracy … the scholars and others… We did a lot of reading and a lot of talking and a lot of thinking that is not in the film that says the fundamental challenge to democracy right now was the invasion of Donald Trump as a figure inside a Republican party that was already just sizzling with trouble.
The Democrats, to be sure, have done things that you could argue about, but they are political arguments. They are not threats to the life and well being of the families and people in Congress if they decide to vote to impeach Donald Trump. [That] is something that a lot of people there are telling me happens, that the fundamentals of the political process in Washington have become so rough and tumble that a lot of people are afraid to vote another way, and are intimidated and fearful. That’s a more fundamental fear and trouble than Critical Race Theory, which is a political issue we can argue about left and right. This other dimension that we’re talking about is at a whole other altitude, and at that altitude, the Republican Party, whether they knew they were doing it or not, are operating now in a way that the people we talked to say challenges fundamentally a democracy.
DEADLINE: Was there one anecdote that especially surprised you?
KIRK: I think the silence of people who you know, and I know, and they know, that they know better. I’m thinking about Leader [Mitch] McConnell. There were many moments along the way when Republicans could have said ‘No, that’s it.’ And there were many moments after January 6, where they could have said, ‘That’s it.’ And they did not. And the surprise for me was in the face of such obvious evidence, and with their life and political legacy on the line, many of them chose the political expedient over the right thing. … As we were interviewing people, I was just like, ‘How is this possible? Where are those profiles and courage that we heard that a lot of people would have? And to sit with Republicans, and hear them say it, ‘What happened to my friends, what happened to McConnell?’
The question is, why? And it’s the it’s the hardest question I ever asked. The why question is the hard question that I think the film tries to address.
DEADLINE: How do you think journalists should cover the Republican party when so much of reporting is based on getting both sides.
KIRK: It’s the hardest time, I think, to be to be a journalist and know how to tell people what you know, in a fair way, in a truthful way. You have to be really good to do it, and I don’t mean clever and manipulative and a great writer. Journalists have to address their consciences and the importance of what we do. And the work needs to reflect it. It used to be easy, just there’s two sides to every story, or you got to have three sources, or those kinds of rules of the road. They’re all still valid, in efforts to try to do it. But to step back and say, ‘This is what’s going on. I’ve looked at everything. I’ve thought about it. I’ve reported on it. And this is what’s going on’….If you just tell the story, it’s hard on Trump. You don’t feel the need to go fill it in with other people just so that you can say ‘Well, look, I had the other side.’ In a way, that’s a lie. Because for some things that happened, there’s not really another side.
DEADLINE: Tim Alberta has been giving interviews warning about the threat to democracy in a way that is quite chilling.
KIRK: He’s setting a kind of standard that says, ‘Look, I’m talking to everybody. I’m talking to people in the States. I’m also talking to people in power in Washington. And he’s saying, ‘I’ve got to say it out loud. I’ve got young kids I want them to look at the record years from now and say, This is what actually happened.’ That’s Tim’s perspective and his interview is fabulous. And so was Peter [Baker] and so is Jonathan Martin. And so is [Alexander] Burns, and so is Susan [Glasser]. I think they know that we’re at a very, very, very tenuous spot, and the role of journalism is to tell people that. That means you kind of have to say the authoritarian word.