The Accidental Celebrities of the Impeachment Inquiry

The Accidental Celebrities of the Impeachment Inquiry

No matter the job title, the gig of most every aide to a member of Congress is essentially the same: to help make it appear that the elected representative — “the name on the door,” as some aides put it — is shouldering the work alone.

This is especially true, and especially tricky, amid the scrutinized pageantry of news conferences and high-stakes public hearings like those convened last month by the House Intelligence Committee and this week by the House Judiciary Committee as part of the ongoing impeachment inquiry.

In hearings, congressional aides often sit behind their bosses, close enough to discreetly provide on-the-spot guidance and information. But, for some, the tougher gig might be operating in front of a scrum of cameras while trying to remain invisible to the public.

“There is whirlwind of activity behind the scenes and it is your job to keep that off-camera and to fade into the wallpaper,” said Jeremy Bash, who attended or staffed about 100 hearings while serving in various roles, including chief of staff to the former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

This is the balance aimed for by Russell Dye, an aide to Representative Jim Jordan, Republican of Ohio, who has taken a visible and audible role as a staunch defender of President Trump in the recent impeachment inquiry hearings.

Mr. Dye says he wants to avoid the camera’s glare when possible, to be invisible in plain sight when necessary and to keep the public’s focus on the work of his boss.

“I tend to like to stay in the background,” said Mr. Dye, 27. “I hate it when I become the center of attention.”

But someone needs to tell that to Mr. Dye’s bright mint-green blazer. Paired with a green bow tie, the jacket has twice attracted national media coverage: first in 2014, when he and his jacket sat in the front row of an I.R.S. hearing and were featured on Twitter, “Morning Joe” and in a political cartoon.

Last month, just before a day of impeachment inquiry testimony would begin, Mr. Dye was setting up posters on easels with messages like, “0 days since Adam Schiff followed House rules.”

As he did so, Andrew Harnik, a staff photographer for The Associated Press, snapped Mr. Dye in his spearmint-gum-colored jacket.

“Hearings and hearing rooms can be on the more staid side so we’re always looking for images that are striking and unexpected,” said Mr. Harnik, 38. “I didn’t have an idea of what the hearings were going to look like, but I wasn’t expecting the posters.” As for Mr. Dye’s outfit, it was (green) icing on the cake.

The photograph was published in The Washington Post, atop an opinion piece called, “A definitive guide to 64 Republican impeachment excuses.” The picture and story were then plucked and billboarded by Apple News.

“That’s not a good article for us, and I disagree with the author’s assertion,” Mr. Dye said, “but it still goes to everyone thanks to your mom and Facebook.”

He even got recognized in the aisles of his hometown Walmart in Forsyth, Ga., when he was there for Thanksgiving. “We’re just trying to do the best we can for the members we work for, but then you end up on Twitter,” he said. “This is the age we live in.”

The more your boss is in the spotlight, the harder it can be to stay out of it. Charli Huddleston also works for Mr. Jordan, as press secretary for the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. She too found herself inadvertently upstaging him, and a gaggle of congressmen, when she was photographed in late October standing on a staircase above them as they staged a protest against the process of the impeachment proceedings. In the photo, a light shines upon Ms. Huddleston, 25, as if from an alien spaceship that is going to beam her up. Once posted to Twitter, the photo went viral.

“It was like, ‘Oh my god, I’m a meme,’” Ms. Huddleston said in an interview.

At first, the moment felt like a fun diversion from a tense time. After BuzzFeed published an article about how the photograph of a Republican congressman’s aide had been adopted as favorite among anti-Trump tweeters, the attention rattled her.

“It’s not supposed to be about me, it’s about the name on the door,” Ms. Huddleston said, recalling her worry about how her boss would react. “I hope he’s going to be O.K. with it.”

In fact, Mr. Jordan called her to make sure she wasn’t feeling trolled by nasty comments. “He was concerned,” she said.

More than simply fade into the background at that same protest, it was the job of Janae Frazier, the press secretary to Representative Mark Walker, Republican of North Carolina, to gather video footage and photographs of her boss and his colleagues that could be used on social media to promote their impeachment resistance.

That’s not how it turned out.

As the protest dragged on, pizza was ordered for the members of Congress, their aides and reporters in attendance.

Ms. Frazier approached the cart of stacked boxes and was about to take a slice when she noticed her picture was being snapped. She made a face (Ms. Frazier describes it as “goofy”) and backed away from the pizza.

“I don’t want my picture taken while I’m eating,” said Ms. Frazier, 28. “I can go in on pizza.”

At a media event that offered all the visual excitement possible of a bunch of middle-aged men in suits standing outside a conference room, the image of a woman contemplating pizza tickled Twitter.

Among staffers and committee aides who have been sitting behind their congressional bosses in the current impeachment hearings, cameras have not seized on many goofy faces (nor did committee staffers seize the opportunity to comment for this article).

“The staffer has to be a sphinx,” said Mr. Bash, the former defense department and congressional aide who is now a national security consultant and news commentator.

“There is no formal training for this role,” he continued. “You have to have been raised on the Iran Contra hearings, the Clarence Thomas hearings, you have to be the kind of person who enjoys flipping to C-Span 3 during hours you’re supposed to be sleeping.”

Even before the age of Twitter and iPhones, the inscrutability of congressional aides was the Washington way. Christopher Putala, 58, worked in the 1990s for then-Senator Joe Biden and staffed dozens of hearings that Mr. Biden took part in as a member of the Judiciary Committee. At Mr. Putala’s first one — “not a controversial hearing,” is all he remembers of it — there was a moment of levity among the senators and the hearing witnesses. Mr. Putala chuckled too.

“There I was, yucking it up, and Evelyn Lieberman, a communications staffer, came up and whispered in my ear. She lit into me and said in no uncertain terms, ‘You are to have no expression. You are to fade into the background.’”

Lesson learned. Sort of. Recently Mr. Putala came across a Now This video that featured a 1993 assault weapons ban hearing which Mr. Biden presided over. Mr. Putala spied himself in the background.

“What am I doing but chewing gum, chomping away,” he said.

The valor of discretion can be lost on today’s youth. When Jessica Sanderson, a lawyer for Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman, was preparing to head to Washington to sit behind her client during his impeachment inquiry hearing testimony last month, Ms. Sanderson’s daughter had one request.

“She said, ‘Mom, you need to do something to become a meme,’” said Ms. Sanderson, 51.

After Ms. Sanderson asked her daughter, a high school senior who was on her school’s constitutional law team last year, to explain what exactly that means, she demonstrated a few silly faces that she thought her mother could make during the testimony.

Ms. Sanderson rejected the suggestions.

Still, after Lt. Col. Vindman’s testimony concluded, Ms. Sanderson’s phone started to blow up. A photograph of a reporter guzzling coffee during the proceedings was going viral, and guess who was also visible in what became one of the most recognizable photos of the day? Yup.

“It was the best of possible worlds,” Ms. Sanderson said. “I was in a meme and I had a straight face.”

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