For all the Republican assaults on Michael Cohen’s character and credibility – an easy thing to pull off against someone convicted of both fraud and lying to Congress – President Trump’s ex-fixer had a warning for them: You’re going down the road that led me here.
“I can only warn people,” the disgraced ex-attorney said, “the more people that follow Mr. Trump as I did, blindly, are going to suffer the same consequences that I’m suffering.”
Cohen, testifying to the House Oversight Committee on Wednesday, said that throughout his decade-long tenure as Trump’s attorney, the “conman” instructed him to lie. Those lies including covering up to Congress the extent and campaign-time duration of a nine-figure deal to build a Moscow Trump Tower and arranging hush-money payments to silence women during the 2016 election who said they had sex with Trump.
Cohen’s account of deceit put Trump closer to legally perilous terrain of the sort that will soon send Cohen to prison: obstructing congressional investigations and violating campaign finance law. He told the panel that in meetings with Trump and attorney Jay Sekulow ahead of his deceitful 2017 congressional testimony, Trump told him: “‘Michael, there’s no Russia, there’s no collusion, there’s no interference.’ I know what he wants because I’ve been around him for so long” – that is, to lie to Congress.
Cohen said “there were several changes that were made” to his congressional testimony, “including how we were gonna handle that message, that message being the length of time the Trump Tower Moscow project stayed alive.”
But Cohen put the apparatus of lies he worked for years to construct in a broader and ominous civic context. “Lying for Mr. Trump was normalized and no one around him questioned it. In fairness, no one questions it now,” Cohen told a panel that quickly and predictably became a circus.
Following the lead of a president who has spent months bashing as a liar the man who used to lie on his behalf, the committee’s Republicans spent their time aggressively impugning Cohen’s truthfulness.
“It seems to me there’s not much that you won’t lie about when you stand to gain a bit,” said North Carolina’s Virginia Foxx. Arizona’s Paul Gosar called Cohen a “pathological liar.” Mark Meadows of North Carolina said he would make a criminal referral to the Justice Department over a detail concerning Cohen’s conviction. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the committee’s ranking member and pointman for the offensive against Cohen, summed it up by saying Cohen was a disgruntled man motivated by sour grapes for not getting a White House job – something Cohen said he didn’t want – and painted the hearing as a political sham advanced by the Clintons.
Cohen tried meekness, repeatedly apologizing for his lies to Congress and the public. But Cohen, who famously told a Daily Beast reporter he would retaliate in a “fucking disgusting” way, isn’t a meek person. He’s an aggressive and brazen one, as his baroque assortment of lies revealed by federal prosecutors in New York testified. As the attacks accumulated, Cohen showed the sort of teeth that endeared him to Trump in the first place.
“Shame on you, Mr. Jordan,” said a visibly angry Cohen as cameras clicked in the room. He at times responded with sarcasm, asking a GOP legislator who asked about Cohen’s future sources of income if he was receiving an offer.
But Cohen was warning those Republicans as well.
Just as Cohen lied to Congress and the public on Trump’s behalf, out of what he called “intoxication” out of being around the “icon” Trump, now they were doing the same sort of “always stay on message, always defend” Trump that Cohen performed for over a decade. Trump gave Cohen financial power; Trump gives the Republican Party political power.
“I’m responsible for your silliness,” Cohen said of what he called GOP questioning that was “really unbecoming of Congress.” He was responsible, he said, “because I did the same thing that you are doing now, for ten years.” Later, Cohen said he “just find[s] it interesting” that amongst the panel Republicans, “not one question has been asked about President Trump.”
Characteristically, Cohen mixed bullshit into his attempt at playing Ex-Trumpist Cassandra. Asked by Tennessee Democrat Jim Cooper what occasioned Cohen’s break with a man Cohen called a racist, a conman and a cheat.
“Helsinki, Charlottesville, watching the daily destruction of our civility to one another,” Cohen answered, hours after he said he, as the son of a Holocaust survivor, should never have worked for a racist.
But whatever reservations Cohen may have had about working for a man who sidled up to Vladimir Putin and defended violent white supremacists as “very fine people,” that wasn’t why Cohen severed his ties with Trump. It was reportedly because Trump in 2018 wasn’t covering Cohen’s legal bills as Cohen’s legal woes coalesced. As Cohen told the oversight committee in his opening statement, Trump’s “fundamental disloyalty” was the wellspring of Wednesday’s explosive hearing.
“He’s becoming an autocrat,” Cohen warned.
But with the possible exception of Michigan’s Justin Amash, no Republican on the panel showed signs of breaking with a man Cohen cautioned would not show them similar loyalty.