The strategy was quintessential Rep. Jim Jordan: Seek out the opponent’s weakness and attack, attack, attack.
The former wrestler and Fox News favorite led the Republicans on the House Oversight and Reform Committee in their almost obsessive focus on Michael Cohen’s past lies during a blockbuster hearing Wednesday, seeking to discredit the House Democrats’ star witness in their first step investigating President Trump.
But Jordan’s singular focus on Cohen’s past came at a price and seemed to receive mixed reviews in the GOP as Republicans were so focused on the past criminality of Trump’s former lawyer that they had little time to defend the president.
Additionally, Cohen’s easy willingness to admit and express regret for his past “dirty deeds” almost seemed to dilute the potency of their charges. Cohen even defended Trump from ugly rumors that he had struck his wife, Melania, at one point — sticking up for the very man he was there to testify against.
Cohen on Wednesday alleged that Trump knew about the hacking of the Democratic National Committee before WikiLeaks had released the documents. He also claimed Trump reimbursed him for hush payments to women while he was president, and said Trump called him at one point to ensure he kept lying about those payments.
Republicans at times asked for proof of these allegations, evidence Cohen didn’t have. But then they quickly pivoted back to questions about his credibility.
Rep. Carol Miller (R-W.Va.) spent much of her time reading from her script and expressing outrage that Democrats even invited Cohen to testify. “You’re about to go to prison for lying. How can we believe anything you say? The answer is we can’t.”
After the hearing, American Conservative Union chief Matt Schlapp praised Jordan (R-Ohio) and Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) on Twitter.
“I am so proud to take the @CPAC stage tomorrow morning w two of my heroes @RepMarkMeadows and @Jim_Jordan who were courageous in Congress today,” he wrote. “You speak for all of us.”
But former governor Chris Christie (R-N.J.), who is close to the president, said on ABC that he can “guarantee” Trump is “sitting in Vietnam right now, fuming that no one’s defending him.” He also argued the performance was “either a failure of those Republicans on the Hill or a failure of the White House to have a unified strategy with them.”
“There hasn’t been one Republican yet who’s tried to defend the president on the substance,” he said. “As the day goes on, [people are] going to get tired of hearing the attacks on Cohen’s credibility. . . . Where’s the defense of the president?”
Other Republicans on the Hill privately agreed. Most, however, mused that Jordan couldn’t have done any better given his position in the minority and the fact that Republicans were defending Trump.
“Truthfully, it is tough to ignore some of the gross immoral behavior by the president,” said one senior House Republican who requested anonymity to speak frankly. “The reason there was no defense is because there is no defense.”
Jordan, a fierce Trump ally, said his strategy was working during a committee break Wednesday evening. His members had prepared and coordinated and “were in touch with all kinds of people” to get ready, he said — though he played coy when asked about coordination with White House.
GOP leaders were apprised of the strategy to discredit Cohen as untrustworthy. But they gave Jordan, who is known for his bulldog-like tactics grilling witnesses during hearings, free rein.
“We’re asking the questions that we think need to be asked,” Jordan said of his strategy. “We’re making the point that we think the American people need to understand, plain and simply.”
Jordan pointed to Rep. Thomas Massie’s (R-Ky.) line of questioning when pressed for an example of a defense of Trump. Massie had referenced Cohen’s written testimony, in which he said he paid money to a porn star without considering whether it was the right thing to do.
“Is that being a good lawyer? To not even consider whether it’s legal or not?” Massie asked. Cohen didn’t answer the question, merely arguing that he did what he thought Trump wanted.
The hearing marked Jordan’s first turn in the spotlight as the leader of the committee’s Republicans. Trump personally wanted him or his close friend Meadows to lead his defense against the Democrats. And many Republicans in the House, well-versed in Jordan’s tactics, agreed with the promotion.
When Republicans did try to defend Trump, their approach didn’t seem to elicit the intended effect. Meadows tried to parry Cohen’s allegation that Trump was a racist by inviting a longtime black friend of Trump’s, Lynne Patton, to stand behind him.
But the moment attracted criticism, when two black Democrats on the panel scoffed at Meadows’s suggestion that a person with a black friend could not possibly be a racist.
“Would you agree that someone could deny rental units to African Americans, lead the birther movement, refer to the diaspora as ‘shithole countries,’ refer to white supremacists as ‘fine people,’ have a black friend, and still be racist?” Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), a freshman legislator, asked Cohen at one point.
The question was clearly for Meadows. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), another freshman, was less forgiving and even seemed to suggest Meadows was racist for bringing in a black woman and using her as “a prop” to defend the president.
After Meadows grew upset and objected fiercely to the suggestion, Tlaib later clarified that she was not calling Meadows a racist. But the entire back-and-forth distracted from the issue at hand — Cohen’s testimony.
Cohen didn’t help the GOP’s case when he defended the president in an unusual moment in an exchange with Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.). He poured cold water on suggestions that there is a secret tape with footage of Trump striking his wife in an elevator. Those rumors had been circulating for years, he agreed, but Trump wouldn’t do something like that.
“I don’t believe that Mr. Trump ever struck Mrs. Trump. Ever,” he said.
Surprisingly, the GOP never picked up and ran with Cohen’s defense of the president on that matter. They also seemed to bypass an opportunity Cohen gave them to discredit a salacious document that law enforcement used in part to obtain a warrant to listen in on the calls of Trump associates during the 2016 election.
At one point, Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.) jeered “liar, liar pants on fire” at Cohen. He even displayed the schoolyard chant on a sign with the same words plastered by Cohen’s face.
But by that time in the hearing, Republicans had already made their point. Several times over.