Michael Cohen, President Trump's former personal attorney, testifies before the House Oversight Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington on Wednesday. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
Media critic

As the Michael Cohen hearing rumbled along on Wednesday — with Republican lawmakers blasting the president’s former attorney and Democrats, with a few exceptions, asking lame questions — some commentators began to notice an omission from the proceedings:

Fair summation: Republicans on the House Oversight Committee sounded as if they were reading from the same set of instructions: Hammer the credibility of Cohen, who’d already pleaded guilty to lying to Congress, among other offenses. As the Republicans recited his sins, Cohen quite willfully acknowledged them. In fact, he even apologized in a Senate appearance for lying to Congress.

Even so! Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) ripped away at Cohen: “You’re a pathological liar. You don’t know truth from falsehood.” He also called the former Trump counsel a “disgraced lawyer.” More telling than the words was Gosar’s unmerciful tone. For his part, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) labored to establish that Cohen’s various deceptions didn’t all accrue to the benefit of President Trump; some of them helped Cohen’s own selfish interests. Clearly he and other Republicans weren’t considering ancient PR warnings against turning an avowed bad guy into a sympathetic, sad sack.

That’s how Cohen finished the day.

But Republican committee members had a problem not unlike the one facing prime-time hosts at Fox News. They had a time slot to fill; they had to fill it with something; and that something could not be a discussion of the merits of Trump. They couldn’t delve into the Stormy Daniels payment — that would involve too much presidential lying, too much immorality. They couldn’t delve into business practices — that would involve too much unethical and possibly illegal behavior, as many news outlets have already documented. They couldn’t delve into Trump’s business ambitions in Moscow — that would involve a full web of lies that Trump and his associates have foisted on the country.

And they couldn’t delve into Trump’s treatment of African Americans — oh, actually they did try that, and it was a disaster. In an effort to challenge Cohen’s contention that Trump was a racist, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) pointed to Lynne Patton, an African American woman who is a former employee of the Trump Organization and the Eric Trump Foundation. “I asked Lynne to come today in her personal capacity to actually shed some light,” Meadows said. “She says that as a daughter of a man born in Birmingham, Ala., that there is no way that she would work for an individual who was racist.”

Ridicule rained down upon Meadows. Better to stick to attacking the attackers. If the Republicans on the committee hadn’t learned this tactic from Fox News, it sure seemed as if they had. On his prime-time program “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” for example, Tucker Carlson has taken this form of deflection to professional splendor. If Trump has done something awful, there’s always something more awful that Carlson can focus on. Like the leaks that have exposed Trump or former national security adviser Michael Flynn; or the Justice Department officials who chatted about the 25th Amendment as a means of removing Trump from office; or some other bogeyman.

Recall that Fox News is the place where Americans go to hear diatribes against the Justice Department, career government officials, the FBI and, you know, all those civil servants dedicated to undermining and ousting Trump. The reason that Fox News host Sean Hannity has spent so much time talking about texting FBI types such as Peter Strzok and Lisa Page — not to mention former deputy director Andrew McCabe and others — is the same reason that House Republicans launched so many ad hominem attacks Wednesday against Cohen: Far better to talk about their character and their record than Trump’s.

With Democrat Elijah Cummings running the hearing, however, Republican members could do only so much to suppress discussion of the president’s deeds. So they ended up doing this:

The Republicans had lost the power to do what Fox News does every night.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Michael Cohen’s hearing was explosive — but not for what was new

Greg Sargent: Four big takeaways from Michael Cohen’s explosive testimony

Paul Waldman: In hearing, Republicans offer zero in response to Michael Cohen’s actual claims

Max Boot: Here are five felonies Trump committed — if Cohen is telling the truth

Jennifer Rubin: The Cohen hearing: The most important and worst moments for Trump and the GOP he corrupted