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‘Can we go home now?’: How conservative media downplayed Michael Cohen’s explosive testimony

Michael Cohen, President Trump's former personal attorney, testifies Wednesday before the House Oversight Committee on Capitol Hill. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Michael Cohen, President Trump’s former attorney, sat on the stand on Capitol Hill on Wednesday and blasted Donald Trump as a liar, a racist and a con man who broke the law while holding the highest office in the United States. His testimony sent shock waves through the political system and opened the possibility of new legal peril for the president.

And, like previous events with the high probability of negative repercussions for Trump, conservative media softened the blow by casting Cohen and his testimony in a negative light.

The Daily Caller led with two headlines on the testimony. One sowed doubt about one of Cohen’s central claims, that Trump talked to friend and adviser Roger Stone about WikiLeaks’s plan to dump a batch of damaging emails about the Hillary Clinton campaign before they were released.

The site’s lead story highlighted Cohen’s denial of a claim in the dossier compiled by former British spy Michael Steele: that Cohen had visited Prague during the 2016 campaign to meet with Kremlin officials.

“Michael Cohen Puts Dagger In The Heart of Steele Dossier,” read the Daily Caller headline.

Michael Cohen concludes his testimony: ‘I will not sit back’

The pro-Trump site Breitbart featured a lead story that focused on the reactions of liberal actors and Hollywood personalities to Cohen’s testimony. “Hollywood Freaks Out over Michael Cohen Hearing: Trump ‘Going Down,’ GOP Is ‘Deathkkkult’” it said, quoting actor John Cusack, who had called the GOP a "deathkkkult” on Twitter during the proceedings.

Other stories on the site focused on Cohen’s previous conviction for lying to Congress, his suggestion that federal prosecutors may be investigating criminal allegations against the president that have yet to be made public, and his refusal to deny that he had plans for a book or movie deal during the testimony.

The Blaze, a conservative media company founded by Glenn Beck, did not appear to include much coverage of the hearing on its homepage in the afternoon.

The fringe conservative site Gateway Pundit, known for spreading conspiracy theories, was more blunt in its headlines around Cohen’s previous dishonesty. It called him “Liar Cohen,” in one. And it focused on media coverage of the hearing, as well.

“GET TRUMP! Democrats, Media Go All In On Michael Cohen: Broadcast, Cable News Nets to Air House Hearing Live; Politico Publishes ‘Bombshell’ Opening Statement,” read its main Cohen headline.

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The discredited site Infowars adopted a similar strategy, contributing a list of “5 lies” it claimed Cohen told under oath.

“Watch live: Convicted liar Michael Cohen testifies for democrats against Trump,” the site said.

Cohen pleaded guilty in November to lying to Congress about a Moscow real estate project that Trump and his company pursued in the midst of the 2016 campaign.

The coverage of the hearing on Wednesday ran parallel to the reception Cohen was given from Republican lawmakers, who also questioned his credibility and the reasons he came forward. And the White House had taken a similar tack.

“Disgraced felon Michael Cohen is going to prison for lying to Congress and making other false statements,” spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said in a statement. “It’s laughable that anyone would take a convicted liar like Cohen at his word, and pathetic to see him given yet another opportunity to spread his lies.”

The effort in the media began even before Cohen had started his testimony.

During his public congressional testimony on Feb. 27, President Trump's former lawyer Michael Cohen repeatedly sparred with Republican lawmakers. (Video: Jenny Starrs, Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post, Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

“This is a melodrama, it’s a soap opera, it’s a tabloid, all wrapped into one,” Fox News contributor and former congressman Jason Chaffetz said Wednesday morning. “Michael Cohen didn’t serve in the government; he wasn’t part of the executive branch; everything that they’re talking about happened before Donald Trump became the president.”

Rep. Matt Gaetz insists he didn’t threaten Michael Cohen. The Florida Bar is now investigating.

“There’s no 'there’ there,” contributor Dan Bongino said later, echoing what seems to be a common refrain after these moments from the pro-Trump crowd. “None of this is great politically. The question is, is it criminally damaging? And the answer is no.”

Fox host Tucker Carlson opened his show with a lengthy dismissal of the substance of Cohen’s testimony.

“There’s no collusion, there’s no Russian blackmail, there’s no obstruction of justice; there are none of the things that our entire media class has spent the last two years huffing and speculating wildly about,” he said, in front of an image that said “No collusion.” “If Michael Cohen had the dime he would drop it, but he doesn’t. There is nothing there. It was all a lie. Can we go home now?”

Some of the main highlights of Cohen’s testimony include detailing how deeply and personally involved Trump was in the scheme to pay off an adult-film actress who alleged that she had an affair with Trump, describing how he had long sought to protect the president, and suggesting that federal prosecutors are investigating unspecified criminal allegations involving the president that have not been made public.

Matt Zapotosky, Karoun Demirjian, Rosalind S. Helderman, Rachael Bade and Shane Harris contributed to this report.

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