From the first moments that Republicans on the House Oversight Committee had a chance to question former Trump attorney Michael Cohen in today’s dramatic hearing, their strategy was clear: not to contest the specifics of what Cohen has to say about the president of the United States, but to do their best to discredit Cohen as a person. Despite their complaints that they hadn’t had enough time to peruse his explosive prepared statement, it appeared that they didn’t even bother to read it.
Which you wouldn’t think would be that hard to do. Cohen is, after all, on his way to prison for multiple crimes, some committed in the course of his service to Donald Trump and some committed for his own personal enrichment. Even before he went to work for Trump, Cohen had a long history of associations with criminals. He pleaded guilty to lying to Congress to conceal the extent of the Trump Organization’s efforts to obtain a lucrative deal to build a Trump Tower in Moscow.
Nevertheless, even a liar can sometimes tell the truth. And while we can approach Cohen’s testimony with a healthy skepticism, there are some things he has no reason to lie about anymore and some things he has documents to back up.
But the Republicans on the committee weren’t interested in interrogating Cohen’s allegations. Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio) expressed his outrage that Cohen is being represented by Lanny Davis, who is friends with Hillary and Bill Clinton. “If the Democrats were after the truth, they’d have an honest person here testifying,” said Rep. Mark Green (Tenn.). At one point, Republicans even put up a large poster with a picture of Cohen and the words “Liar liar pants on fire.” Seriously.
Every Republican member used their five minutes to look for a new angle to go at Cohen, so long as it didn’t touch on what he was testifying to with regard to the president. Rep. Mark Meadows (N.C.), the head of the House Freedom Caucus and a close ally of President Trump, used his time to question Cohen on the almost comically sleazy efforts he undertook after Trump took office to sell himself to large corporations as an influence-peddler.
It’s a colorful story, and one that does indeed shed light not only on what kind of guy Cohen is but also the general atmosphere of cashing in that attended Trump’s ascendance to the White House. The problem is that like all of the other Republican criticisms, it doesn’t tell us anything about what Trump knew in 2016 about the Russian campaign to get him elected president. And yes, Cohen is a sketchy character. But it’s awfully hard to find any honest people around Trump who can speak to what the president did and didn’t do.
The argument Republicans make about Cohen comes down to this: This gentleman, whom Trump employed for a decade, is such a dishonest criminal that we shouldn’t believe anything he says about anything.
Cohen himself realized this a few hours in. “Not one question so far” from the Republicans, he said, “has been asked about Mr. Trump.”
Even the Republicans on the Oversight Committee who aren’t in regular contact with the president are well aware of what his strategy is to deal with the Russia investigation and his other scandals: Ignore the specifics, insist that any piece of information that reflects poorly on him must by definition be fake, and say the whole thing is a “witch hunt."
If that’s your plan, the last thing you want to do is start asking questions about matters such as Trump’s questionable claim that he knew nothing about the infamous Trump Tower meeting with his son, his son-in-law, his campaign chairman and a group of Russians they hoped would be delivering dirt on Hillary Clinton. Or about the fact that Trump lied and said he didn’t know about the hush money payments to Stormy Daniels, when his signature is on the check reimbursing Cohen for the money. Or about how Trump lied about pursuing the Trump Tower Moscow deal through much of 2016.
You can see the problem. If Republicans tried to press Cohen on the specifics of what he alleges about Trump, they would very quickly find themselves in an area where the president is acting like a guilty man, as are so many others around him.
So pay close attention to what the president himself and his advocates will say about this hearing in the coming days. They aren’t going to say much about what Cohen actually said or the documents he presented. They’ll just say he’s a liar and we should all ignore him. That message will be repeated over and over on Fox News and conservative talk radio. And a good portion of the country will believe it.