The formal process of removing Donald Trump from an office for which he is uniquely unfit will not begin until the House Judiciary Committee opens hearings with an eye toward framing articles of impeachment against the president. But when that process begins, as it surely should, the remarkable testimony by former Trump fixer Michael Cohen before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform will be recognized as a critical turning point in the unraveling of this lawless presidency.
House Oversight Committee chair Elijah Cummings, the Maryland Democrat who so ably and carefully managed Wednesday’s hearing, did not use the “I” word. That was understandable, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and other members of the chamber’s leadership have yet to formally embrace the constitutional remedy for a constitutional crisis. They generally echo the line of House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, the California Democrat who said in January, “It’s premature to consider what remedy is appropriate. After [special counsel] Bob Mueller issues his report, we ought to see what evidence he produces, before we have any discussions of what the consequences should be.”
What Cummings did say on Wednesday is, “The American people voted for accountability in November, and they have a right to hear Mr. Cohen in public so they can make their own judgments. Mr. Cohen’s testimony is the beginning of the process—not the end.”
But how, if the Constitution is operational, could there be another end than an accountability moment for a president who is the subject of multiple inquiries into allegations of dramatic wrongdoing on the part of candidate Trump, President Trump, and Trump associates? How, if the Congress is still to be understood as a meaningful check and balance on electoral and executive abuses, can the US House of Representatives neglect so devastating an indictment of Donald Trump by a man who served for a critical decade “as his Executive Vice President and Special Counsel and then personal attorney when he became President”?
“I am no longer your fixer, Mr. Trump,” declared Cohen, who repeatedly acknowledged on Wednesday that he had lied and broken the law on the president’s behalf. Cohen described the man who now serves as president of the United States as a crude and irresponsible man who acted in profoundly dishonorable and destructive ways during the years of their acquaintance, and who brought to the White House an awful politics built on lies and fearmongering.
Recalling Trump’s 2016 “Make America Great Again” presidential campaign, Cohen told the committee: “The sad fact is that I never heard Mr. Trump say anything in private that led me to believe he loved our nation or wanted to make it better. In fact, he did the opposite.” And he asserted that the sharpest criticisms of the president only begin to tell the story of a charlatan who former John McCain aide and Republican operative Mark Salter says now leads “an association of frat boys, grifters, self-dealers, racists and cowards.”
“Mr. Trump is a racist. The country has seen Mr. Trump court white supremacists and bigots. You have heard him call foreign countries shitholes,” Cohen explained. “In private, he is even worse.”
After apologizing for lying to Congress in order to protect Trump from necessary scrutiny, Cohen then said, “To our nation, I am sorry for actively working to hide from you the truth about Mr. Trump when you needed it most.”
Republicans sought to discredit Cohen at every turn, with attempts to delay the hearing and with pronouncements that referred to Cohen as a “fake witness” and declared that his testimony was a “travesty.” The bullying got so extreme that Congressman Jamie Raskin (D-MD) felt compelled to begin his round of questioning by telling Cohen, “Our colleagues aren’t upset that you lied to Congress for the president. Our colleagues are upset because you stopped lying to Congress for the president.”
The desperate attempts by Republicans to disparage and discredit the witness were repeatedly upended by Cohen’s self-deprecating testimony, in which the former deputy finance chairman of the Republican National Committee spoke frequently about the fact that he will soon be imprisoned for committing campaign-finance violations and other crimes “for the principal purpose of influencing” the 2016 presidential election in Donald Trump’s favor.
Trump’s longtime lawyer was devastatingly blunt, and devastatingly specific, explaining to the committee that “last fall I pled guilty in federal court to felonies for the benefit of, at the direction of, and in coordination with Individual Number 1. For the record: Individual Number 1 is President Donald J. Trump.”
As such, Cohen provided much more than an indictment of the president’s character. He detailed wrongdoing that can and should form the basis for articles of impeachment.
Here, as detailed Wednesday by Cohen, is an example of an offense that is worthy of congressional consideration:
As Exhibit 5 to my testimony shows, I am providing a copy of a $35,000 check that President Trump personally signed from his personal bank account on August 1, 2017—when he was President of the United States—pursuant to the cover-up, which was the basis of my guilty plea, to reimburse me—the word used by Mr. Trump’s TV lawyer—for the illegal hush money I paid on his behalf. This $35,000 check was one of 11 check installments that was paid throughout the year—while he was President.
The President of the United States thus wrote a personal check for the payment of hush money as part of a criminal scheme to violate campaign finance laws. You can find the details of that scheme, directed by Mr. Trump, in the pleadings in the US District Court for the Southern District of New York.
“The checks are the smoking gun, and the facts are coming out,” declared California Democrat Ro Khanna. When it came time for him to question Trump’s former lawyer, Khanna asked: “Are you telling us, Mr. Cohen, that the president directed transactions in conspiracy with [Trump Organization chief financial officer] Alan Weisselberg and his son Donald Trump Jr. as part of…a criminal conspiracy of financial fraud? Is that your testimony today?” Cohen answered: “Yes.”
Following the day-long hearing, Cummings was asked: “Do you believe that the president committed a crime while in office?” The chairman replied that “looking at the checks and listening to Mr. Cohen it appears that he did.”
Congresswoman Katie Hill, D-California, focuses attention of the specific allegations, which have both contemporary and historic relevance. Hill asked Cohen: “Is there additional corroborating evidence that Mr. Trump, while a sitting president of the United States, directly reimbursed you hush money as part of a criminal scheme to violate campaign finance laws?” Cohen responded, “There are 11 checks that I received for the year.” Cohen promised to provide the committee with the checks.
History records that the House Judiciary Committee, in July of 1974, approved the second article of impeachment against President Richard Nixon. “Using the powers of the office of President of the United States, Richard M. Nixon, in violation of his constitutional oath faithfully to execute the office of President of the United States and, to the best of his ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States, and in disregard of his constitutional duty to take care that the laws be faithfully executed,” that article began. On the list of the “unlawful activities” the article referenced were “the campaign financing practices of the Committee to Re-elect the President.”
Donald Trump and Richard Nixon are very different men, who ran very different campaigns under reasonably different laws. The times are different. The Congress is different. But no one should doubt that Michael Cohen’s testimony provided information that should, indeed, be recognized as the beginning of an accountability process—not the end.
Congressman Stephen Lynch (D-MA) spoke well and wisely when he noted during a break in Wednesday’s hearing that “there’s enough here to cause more hearings.”