By Frank Bowman
I tuned in and out of Michael Cohen’s testimony before the House Oversight Committee on Wednesday. By the end, my reactions were pretty much in tune with what has become the general consensus.
Cohen told us very little we didn’t already know. Mostly he confirmed from an insider’s perspective that Trump is the man he appears to be. A liar. A bigot. An adulterer. A cheat. A narcissist to the marrow who, unlike the mythical Greek who gave obsessive self-regard its name, will not pine quietly away staring at his own reflection in a sylvan pool, but has found in the modern media an endless river of print and digital pools in which he daily and desperately schemes to be reflected.
In his portrait of Trump, Cohen was entirely believable. Not because he is himself notably honest. Nor because his claimed epiphany about Trump’s flaws and his own foolishness in following such a man is particularly credible. To the contrary, what makes Cohen on Trump so obviously true is that he is just the kind of guy attracted to the Trumps of the world. A second-rater, endowed with only modest talents and unburdened by any noticeable moral code. But hungry for money and respect and happy to abase himself before a seeming bigshot and do his twisted bidding to swim in the bigshot’s wake.
Just as guys like Cohen are drawn to Trump, so too does Trump instinctively surround himself with Cohens. He needs servility and moral bankruptcy and avarice in his servants. And he recognizes and draws those with these traits into his orbit. In this respect, Trump is like the mob bosses he obviously admires and seeks to emulate. There are no honest men or women in his circle, at least none who stay for long. Most either come to him bent or become so by association. Those who retain their ethical grounding either leave when resurgent self-respect compels them or are cast out when Trump realizes that they resist corruption.
Cohen’s testimony rings true in its essence to me in part because I’ve prosecuted and sometimes flipped (and occasionally defended) enough guys just like him. Most members of criminal enterprises are not comic book villains. They are customarily just greedy and weak and amoral. When caught, they often have precisely Michael Cohen’s sort of self-pitying charm. But their flawed humanity makes them no less blameworthy. Still less does it excuse the actions of the bigshots who use them.
All that said, Cohen’s testimony really doesn’t advance the ball very much for those who hunger for Trump’s political demise. The essential problem, often remarked upon, is that Trump’s base in the right-wing media echo chamber, in red state America, and, sadly, in the congressional Republican Party knows who he is and just doesn’t care.
The performance by Republican congressmen in the Cohen hearing cemented this point. With perhaps one exception, the Republican members of the Oversight Committee asked no questions about any of Cohen’s general or specific allegations. They were ostentatiously uninterested in discovering whatever the facts may be on any point. Indeed, they did not even attempt to challenge Cohen on the particulars of his testimony. Their entire effort was repeated variations of the playground taunt “Liar, liar, pants on fire” — which incredibly they put on a poster in the hearing room. The most astute thing Cohen said the whole day was that the Republicans on the committee had transformed themselves into publicly elected versions of himself.
This leads to two reflections:
First, if any doubt lingered, there will be no repetition of the Watergate experience in which, although there was partisan wrangling aplenty, members of Congress of both parties worked together most of the time to discover the facts about President Nixon’s behavior. At a bare minimum, in public hearings members of Nixon’s party (and their staff) felt it necessary to seem interested in the truth and thus asked questions aimed at acquiring information. For example, it was minority counsel for the Senate Watergate Committee who discovered and then publicly exposed the existence of Nixon’s White House taping system. In the Cohen hearing, with the possible exception of Cong. Justin Amash (R-MI), not a single Republican congressman asked a question aimed at discovering facts.
Second, if Democrats in Congress hope to get to whatever the truth may be about Trump’s various possible misbehaviors, they are going to have shoulder the responsibility themselves. And they are going to have to do a better job than they did on Wednesday. If Cohen’s testimony confirmed the existing sad portrait of Trump’s general character and modus operandi, it added little by way of detail or corroborating evidence.
On Russia, as Republicans gleefully noted, Cohen had little or nothing to add. Indeed, he denied the claim in the Steele dossier that he’d been to Prague doing something nefarious.
The check from Trump to Cohen reimbursing him for paying off the mistresses for their silence was a nice touch, but no one seriously doubts that Trump arranged those payoffs. And it’s pretty plain that Trump is not going to be indicted on that ground during his presidency or impeached for it either.
The Trump financial statements produced in tandem with Cohen’s allegation that Trump made false statements to Deutsche Bank in connection with an effort to obtain a loan to buy the Buffalo Bills are certainly suggestive. It may well prove that Trump committed bank fraud in various transactions predating his presidency, but Cohen’s testimony does nothing more than suggest avenues of further investigation.
If Republican members merely demonstrated their blind fealty to Trump, Democrats demonstrated their lack of preparedness to serve as serious investigators. There was precious little indication of a coordinated Democratic strategy for interrogating Cohen or of individual Member preparation to explore the evidentiary clues Cohen provided. It was political theatre and little more.
In my next post, I will consider whether the House Democrats’ allocation of investigative authority for matters Trumpian suggests a serious effort to build a case for impeachment, or a disposition to create a continuing series of spectacles like the Cohen hearing.