GOP Lawmakers' Strategy: Assail Cohen's Credibility

GOP Lawmakers' Strategy: Assail Cohen's Credibility
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
GOP Lawmakers' Strategy: Assail Cohen's Credibility
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
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Michael Cohen walked into Wednesday’s House Oversight Committee hearing wearing a conservative blue suit paired with a powder blue tie -- a little more than three months before he must surrender that attire for a federal prison uniform.

It was not his first appearance before Congress, a fact referenced repeatedly by committee Republicans throughout his more than six hours of testimony.

Cohen, the personal attorney of President Trump for more than a decade, will soon begin serving a three-year sentence for tax fraud, securities fraud, and making false statements to Congress.

“It is the first time a convicted perjurer has been brought back to be a star witness in a hearing,” Rep. Jim Jordan, the Republican ranking member on the committee, said early in the proceedings, setting the tone for the testimony that followed.

“And there is a reason this is a first, because no other committee would do it,” the Ohio lawmaker continued. “But the Democrats don't care. They don't care. They just want to use you, Mr. Cohen. You're their patsy today.”

GOP committee members never deviated from that track. Cohen is a “tax evader,” they pointed out. He is a “bank swindler,” they noted. He is “an all-around liar,” they argued.

At one point, when the time of Rep. Paul Gosar expired, the Arizona Republican had his staffers carry a poster bearing Cohen’s face into the committee room. The caption read, “Liar, liar, pants on fire!”

Cohen did not defend his character. The now disbarred lawyer, who once fancied himself a fixer for the president and who admitted to threatening individuals on his behalf as many as 500 times, was instead uncharacteristically contrite.

Cohen admitted to lying, and to doing so repeatedly on Trump’s behalf. One lie he now regrets: covering up the alleged infidelity of the president (which Trump denies).

“He asked me to pay off an adult-film star with whom he had an affair and to lie to his wife about it, which I did,” Cohen said before submitting a copy of a reimbursement check he says Trump personally signed.

“Lying to the first lady is one of my biggest regrets,” Cohen continued in prepared remarks. “She is a kind, good person. I respect her greatly. She did not deserve that.”

Under oath and in front of the cameras, Cohen went further in painting himself as “a picture-perfect example of what not to do.”

“You make mistakes in life and I have owned them and I have taken responsibility for them, and I'm paying a huge price, as is my family. So if that in and of itself isn't enough to dissuade someone from acting in the callous manner that I did, I'm not sure that that person has any, any chance, very much like I'm in right now.”

Republicans were hardly sympathetic to Cohen’s conversion narrative, and only paused their questioning of his credibility to attack him as an opportunist. They asked whether he violated attorney-client privilege when he recorded the president. Cohen said he did not. They asked whether he would pledge to forgo any future movie, book, or television deals. Cohen said he would not.

Halfway around the world, preparing to negotiate a denuclearization deal with North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un, Trump did not weigh in while Cohen was on Capitol Hill.  His campaign press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, did release a statement toward the end of the hearing echoing the attacks of congressional Republicans. Rather than rebut Cohen’s testimony point-by-point, she called him “a felon, a disbarred lawyer, and a convicted perjurer who lied to both Congress and the Special Counsel.”

“This is the same Michael Cohen who has admitted that he lied to Congress previously,” McEnany wrote. “Why did they even bother to swear him in this time?”

If Democrats hoped Cohen would break open the Russian investigation while under oath, they ended the day disappointed. He offered no new evidence, only conjecture.

“Questions have been raised about whether I know of direct evidence that Mr. Trump or his campaign colluded with Russia. I do not, and I want to be clear,” he said in his opening statement before adding, however, that he has “my suspicions.”

Cohen didn’t offer much more on that front when questioned by Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who led the Democratic National Committee in 2016 and whose hacked emails helped launch investigations into Russian interference in the election.

“As I stated in my earlier testimony, I wouldn’t use the word ‘colluding,’” he said. “Was there something odd about the back-and-forth praise with President Putin? Yes. But I’m not really sure I can answer that question in terms of collusion.”

The testimony will not put to bed that question. If anything, Cohen shifted the focus to another longtime Trump confidant, Roger Stone.

It was July 2016 and Cohen was in Trump’s office, he told lawmakers, when Stone called. Trump put the conversation on speakerphone, and Cohen claims he overheard Stone insist that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange told him “there would be a massive dump of emails that would damage Hillary Clinton’s campaign.”

According to Cohen, a delighted Trump exclaimed, “Wouldn’t that be great?”

Whether Americans believe anything Cohen had to say depends on whether they find the original argument of Jordan persuasive. Republicans see a crooked attorney in Trump’s former lawyer; Democrats, a convert compelled by conscience.

Cohen is more likely to fancy himself a martyr. 

"Thank you all for being here today. I am humbled, I'm thankful to Chairman Cummings for giving me the opportunity today to tell my truth, and I hope that as Chairman Cummings said, it helps in order to heal America,” he told reporters at the end of the day.

Before speeding away from the Hill in the front seat of a black suburban, Cohen took care to shake the hands of Capitol Hill Police as cameras rolled. He reports to prison May 6.

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