A documentary film scrutinized by the congressional January 6 committee exposes divisions between the former US president Donald Trump and his children over the deadly insurrection at the US Capitol.
Released to the public on Sunday, Unprecedented portrays Trump’s 2020 election campaign as a family affair and features interviews with him and his inner circle before, during and after the vote.
British film-maker Alex Holder gives plenty of airtime to the ex-president and his offspring lavishing praise on one another – material that is not likely to interest the committee – but also asks their views on the fateful events of January 6.
Trump reverts to his lies about widespread voter fraud: “Well, it was a sad day but it was a day where there was great anger in our country,” he says. “The people went to Washington primarily because they were angry with an election that they think was rigged.
“A very small portion, as you know, went down to the Capitol and then a very small portion of them went in. 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 January 6.”
But when Holder then puts the same question to three of Trump’s children, they are less forthcoming. His son Eric says: “Yeah, let’s skip the 6th.” Son Don Jr and daughter Ivanka also decline to comment on the incendiary subject, as does Vice President Mike Pence.
Ivanka’s silence is perhaps the least surprising. The film recalls how, at a campaign rally in Georgia on 4 January, Ivanka swerved past the election fraud conspiracy, allowing Don Jr to seize the opportunity to outflank her and impress his father. The January 6 committee has also heard Ivanka testify that she accepted attorney general William Barr’s assessment that the election was free and fair.
Ivanka is less forthright in Unprecedented when she carefully states: “As the president has said, every single vote needs to be counted and needs to be heard. And he campaigned for the voiceless.”
Author and journalist Philip Rucker comments in the film: “She was very uncomfortable with the president’s lie after the election but she would never utter anything herself to establish that disagreement.”
Holder recently tested to the House of Representatives panel investigating the January 6 attack for around four hours behind closed doors about his approximately 100 hours of footage. He turned over segments of the footage demanded in a subpoena requiring his cooperation.
The filmmaker has also been subpoenaed to testify in a Georgia investigation into whether Trump and others illegally tried to influence the 2020 election in the state.
Holder conducted three sit-down interviews with Trump, and the film is punctuated by out-takes of the president expressing concern about camera angles, lighting and objects spoiling the shot (“Can we get the orange out please? It’s very orangey”). Trump is also seen proudly watching videos of his children on the campaign trail.
The interview with Pence – whom Trump pressured to overturn the election result, even though he had no such power – took place on 12 January.
Pence is seen reacting to an email which the documentary says is a congressional draft resolution demanding that he invokes the 25th amendment of the constitution to remove Trump from office. Pence’s office has insisted it was in fact confirmation that his letter had been sent to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi rejecting her request to invoke the 25th amendment.
During the interview, Pence says: “I’m always hopeful about America. I always believe that America’s best days are yet to come. I still believe that.”
Earlier, the vice-president recalls happier times when he and his family were invited to Trump’s golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, to discuss becoming his running mate in 2016. “I did play golf,” he says. “Not the way he does.”
By January 6 2021, Trump was assailing Pence via Twitter and, the House committee has heard, raising no objection to the notion of his deputy being hanged by the mob. The documentary features Trump saying: “I think I treat people well, unless they don’t treat me well, in which case you go to war.”
It shows the Trump clan inside a bubble where they speak at huge rallies, are told by aides that the president is on course for re-election and come to think that defeat is unthinkable. At one point Ivanka remarks: “I’ve been in four states in the last two days and the energy and excitement for the president surpasses that in 2016.”
Speaking to the Guardian earlier this month, Holder said he went into the interviews with Trump and his children with open-ended questions and a deferential approach to avoid the exchanges coming off as confrontational.
At one point Holder asks Ivanka: “What’s your first memory of your father?” She replies: “He used to sing to me when I was little, and nobody knew this except me and him until my mom caught him on the baby monitor, which I cannot imagine him doing now.”
Holder then asks Trump if he remembers that story. He replies: “I do, sure, I used to sing to all my kids a little bit. When I say sing, not sing with any ideas for myself to go to Carnegie Hall someday. Just, you know, I love my kids. I’ve been, I think, a very good father. It’s been very important to me.”
In another segment, Ivanka comments: “Well, arguably, nobody takes more incoming than the president. I mean, most people would be under their desk in a fetal position sucking their thumb crying. And most politicians don’t have the strength or the conviction to withstand that pushback. This president does and I think our whole family does.”
Her husband, Jared Kushner, also speaks in glowing terms about his father-in-law.
But the three-part documentary, streaming on Discovery+, also contains raw footage of the Capitol attack recorded by Holder’s director of photography, Michael Crommett, and multiple critical voices from academics, authors and journalists.
Princeton University’s Eddie Glaude, a professor of African American studies, comments about January 6: “If the kindling is just sitting there and no one throws the match on it, it’s just going to sit there. Trump threw the match so he’s responsible. All of the folks around him are responsible because they threw the damn match.”