We the American people are governed today by very bad men, and a few bad women, and after two years, this humiliation feels like a chronic illness for which there’s no relief, a mysterious infection nobody can diagnose or treat. We all know well that the president is a liar, a serial sexual harasser, a business cheat, the plutocrat’s plutocrat; a man who flouts American political norms and even laws; who flaunts his ties to dictators like North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and Russia’s Vladimir Putin; a man who talks and acts disconcertingly like a mob boss. The corruption of the president and the men (and a few women) around him is obvious and demoralizing. The scandals break so frequently, we’re becoming inured to them. Our chronic illness makes it hard to adequately respond, as individuals and as a nation.
Could Michael Cohen’s stunning Wednesday testimony—about Trump’s lies, his greed, his cheating in business and marriage, his cruelty, his dealings with Russia while running for president, his prior knowledge about the WikiLeaks assault on the Clinton campaign—begin our needed national cure? It’s complicated. Cohen is himself a bad man, despite his testimony to the contrary, who did bad things—some for Trump, but many for his own enrichment. There can be no cure for us, of course, until the president leaves the White House. But as the bad men around Donald Trump are forced to tell the truth, we get closer to that day of reckoning. Wednesday surely brought us closer, but it’s not clear yet how much.
When Cohen’s written testimony dropped Tuesday night, it was shocking to read the president’s former lawyer state coldly: “He is a racist. He is a con man. He is a cheat.” We all know that, but Cohen went on to provide, as they say, the receipts: checks and wire transfers paid to cover up affairs, copies of Trump’s financial statements, threats he made to block the release of Trump’s college transcripts and draft records, his memories of Trump’s casual but committed racism, as well as already public Trump tweets in which he called Cohen a “rat” and appeared to threaten his family, like the mob boss he so frequently appears to be.
And just like Mafia minions, Trump’s House GOP defenders moved quickly to thuggishly defend him. Florida Representative Matt Gaetz tweeted Tuesday night: “Hey @MichaelCohen212—Do your wife & father-in-law know about your girlfriends? Maybe tonight would be a good time for that chat. I wonder if she’ll remain faithful when you’re in prison. She’s about to learn a lot.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi immediately reprimanded Gaetz for what was clearly a threat to a congressional witness, and Gaetz walked it back. But then he showed up at the hearing, even though he’s not a committee member, glowering at Cohen like a street-level enforcer loitering at the back of the courtroom trying to intimidate someone testifying against a mob boss. (The Florida bar association just opened an investigation into Gaetz’s threat, probably just the beginning of his troubles.)
Likewise, as the House Oversight Committee hearing began, GOP ranking member Jim Jordan and Freedom Caucus wingnut Mark Meadows did all they could to smear Cohen and shut it down—ostensibly because the committee received Cohen’s written testimony later than required. Chair Elijah Cummings and his fellow Democrats thwarted them. “The days of this committee protecting the president at all costs are over,” Cummings declared.
Amen. Elections have consequences.
The minor GOP mafiosi had been defeated, but they would not be silenced. They used all of their time, all day, to defend Trump and demean Cohen, as well as Cummings and the Democrats, but they ultimately failed. Every time they smeared Cohen as a liar and a fraud, they implicitly reminded us that Trump employed this liar and a fraud as an attorney for 10 years. It was not a good look for them.
Given his many enemies, Cohen appropriately opened his testimony with a plea to keep his family safe, his voice breaking. While one claim by Trump’s defenders is beyond debate—Cohen is by his own admission a liar and a perjurer; he’s going to prison for it—before the committee, he came across as contrite and sometimes broken. Battered, discredited, Cohen was nonetheless compelling and, to my eyes, mostly credible. While Republicans tried to paint him as an irrepressible liar, there will in fact be a steep price to him for any further lies to Congress. He is going to prison for at least three years; more lying would surely stiffen his sentence. “I don’t think my colleagues are afraid you’re gonna lie; I think they’re afraid you’ll tell the truth,” Democratic Representative Steven Lynch concluded, and he was right.
In addition to his shocking written testimony, Cohen made other revelations under questioning by committee members. One might have no legal import but stood out nonetheless: He told Rep. Jackie Speier that Trump got him to intimidate or threaten “people or organizations” more than 500 times over 10 years.
But there were plenty of admissions with legal implications as well: Cohen testified that he conferred with Trump and Trump attorney Jay Sekulow before his May 2017 testimony to Congress and said the president encouraged him to deliver the message that there was no Russian collusion. He also admitted that he told the House and Senate Intelligence Committees that Trump’s Moscow tower discussions took place before the Republican primary began when they continued until June of 2016. Asked why he couldn’t talk about his final conversation with Trump, he revealed that it was about matters that were under investigation by the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, an investigation Congress apparently hadn’t previously known about. He testified that Trump lied when he denied knowing Russian mobster (and FBI informant) Felix Sater.
When Cohen confirmed that Trump pursued his Moscow Tower deal through much of 2016, lied about it repeatedly during his presidential campaign, and had Cohen and others seek Putin’s assistance with the deal, New Yorker writer Susan Glasser termed his admission the “classic definition of kompromat Putin had on Trump” on Twitter. No need for a pee tape, people.
Maybe most important, it was the first time the American people got to see one of the men at the heart of the case against the president, testifying against Trump in his own words. This is the constitutionally mandated oversight the House GOP has refused to conduct for two years. Cohen’s finest moment came when he challenged his GOP critics for attacking him by pointing out they were acting just like him.
“I did the same thing that you’re doing now for 10 years. I protected Mr. Trump for 10 years,” he said. “That puts you into the same position that I’m in. The more people who do what I did, follow Mr. Trump blindly, will suffer the same consequences I did.” He added: “Everybody’s job at the Trump Org was to protect Mr. Trump. Every day, most of us knew we were coming in and we were going to lie for him on something. And that’s exactly what’s happening right now in this country. It’s exactly what’s happening here in government.”
Cohen testified about the “code” all Trumplings understood, with no need for Trump to order them to do bad, illegal things. “If you’ve ever covered a mob trial, that’s what it sounds like,” said CNN’s John King during a break in the action.
The country also got to see its new Democratic House majority in action—including the three new radical women on the Oversight committee, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib. Ocasio-Cortez raised sharp questions about how Trump dodged taxes, Pressley drilled down on Trump’s racism, while Tlaib called out Meadows using black Trump aide Lynne Patton as a prop during the hearing to disprove Cohen’s claim that Trump is a racist—without using Meadows’s name. That prompted a hysterical, farcical protest from Meadows that Cummings tried to placate by calling Meadows a “friend” (with friends like Meadows…) and that ultimately forced Tlaib to insist she wasn’t calling Meadows a racist. To quote the irrepressible Oscars meme on Twitter, Green Book says Meadows isn’t a racist, either. What a farce.
But Tlaib drew blood, ending the daylong hearing by underscoring the ineffectual histrionics of the GOP Trump defenders, those sad mob wannabes. In his closing, an outraged Cummings talked about how Trump and the GOP’s persistent trashing of Cohen as a “rat” might put him in literal physical danger in prison. It’s unclear how the newly ascendant House Democrats will build on what happened Wednesday—in a post-hearing press briefing, Cummings said he was consulting with House Intelligence Committee chair Adam Schiff—but it’s clear that they plan to. On one level, the day felt like practice for long-overdue impeachment hearings. Our long national chronic illness, this mysterious antidemocratic infection we’re enduring—well, it’s not over. But we can maybe imagine a cure.