QUICK TAKEAWAYS FROM COHEN’S TESTIMONY IN CONGRESS.

I will put the disclaimer in front: this is Marie-Anne, and a couple of hours ago I finished watching the much anticipated hearing in the House Oversight Committee, now chaired by Maryland’s Elijah Cummings (D). I have not yet had the benefit of reading much by way of expert opinions, so if there are any factual mistakes in what I write, they were made in good faith, and I am solely responsible for them. Please don’t shoot the messenger.

Talking of shooting the messenger, this was the path chosen by the Republican members of the committee. They lost no opportunity to remind Cohen that he is a convicted felon now facing prison time for lying to Congress among other crimes. While it is a time-honored tactic to discredit the witness, and therefore his testimony, when he says things you do not want to hear, it became clear from the beginning that Republicans, led by Jim Jordan and Mark Meadows (cofounders of the House Tea Party), had little interest in knowing whether any criminal acts were committed by their president and his entourage. Before any questions could be asked, Mark Meadows asked on point of order that the hearing be postponed because some documents (Cohen’s opening statement, I think) had been delivered to the committee less than 24 hours before the scheduled hearing. The next move by Republicans, this time Jim Jordan, was to try to link Cohen to the usual Republican bugaboos: Hillary Clinton, Tom Steyer, and Christopher Steele (a “foreigner”, Jordan noted). The implication was clear: there is no search for truth by the committee Democrats, just a plot to impeach Trump.

This strategy of discrediting Cohen could actually misfire. If anyone with information deleterious to the Trump operations, be it the presidency, the Trump Organization, the Trump (charitable) Foundation, is fundamentally untrustworthy, what does that say about a president who surrounds himself with crooks? He must himself be either a crook or hopelessly naïve – neither a good trait in the leader of the free world! It is true that Cohen is no knight in shining armor – and there are numerous examples of Cohen acting dishonestly for his own gain in addition to acting at the president’s behest – but most trials would never take place if every witness had to be a choirboy.

As for Cohen’s opening statement. What was noteworthy about it – apart from the fact that he called Trump a “racist”, a “con man” and a “cheat” – is the fact that Cohen, aware of his damaged credibility, brought documents to support his claims that Trump paid off two women who had affairs with him WHILE HE WAS ALREADY IN OFFICE.

There were some new (to me, at least) admissions by Cohen, including the fact that, as early as 2014, he hired a firm to manipulate polls in order to make Trump sound like a more plausible candidate for a presidential run. Asked whether “bots” had been used, Cohen said it was possible. Cohen said he heard Roger Stone tell Trump over the phone about the Wikileaks document dump before it actually happened. He claims he heard Don Jr. whisper to his father that the  “meeting is all set”. He was alluding to the Trump Tower meeting with a Russian lawyer connected to the Kremlin, in which “dirt” on Hillary was illegally offered. Cohen confirmed something we already knew: Trump inflated the value of his assets when it suited his purposes (self-aggrandizement or asking for a bank loan) and deflated same value when asked to pay taxes, thereby cheating the US government of tax revenue.

Cohen, reminded again and again by Republicans that he is a liar and a convicted felon, managed to score some points. He told Jim Jordan that he and his Republican colleagues are now doing what he, Cohen, had done for ten years: “Everybody’s job at the Trump Organization is to protect Trump. [….] You keep asking about things I have done. America is not interested in me. Not one question has been asked by Republicans about Mr. Trump” (may not be verbatim).

The hearing had some bickering about legal points – Katie Hill (D-CA)  refuted Mark Meadows (R-NC) contention that Cohen had lied about foreign contracts on a tax document. The hearing also had the expected grandstanding and charged language. Cohen was called every word for “crook” possible, Mr. Rouda (D-CA) made sure we knew of Trump’s association with Felix Sater, “a convicted Russian mobster”. It’s all true and it’s all sad. The proceedings were depicted by Ms. Miller (R-WVA) as an unpatriotic waste of time while Mr. Trump was at the end of the world negotiating to keep us safe. She used “appalled” a lot. Mr. Lynch (D-MA) dramatically told Cohen: “My [Republican] colleagues are not afraid you will lie. They are afraid you will tell the truth.”

Some committee members I was not familiar with distinguished themselves in my opinion. Ms. Plaskett (D-USVI – non voting member of Congress, like Eleanor Norton of the District of Columbia) lamented the lack of ethical behavior in Trump circles: Department of Justice officials refusing to follow the advice of the Office of Government Ethics, Congressman Matt Gaetz’s direct threat to Cohen via Tweet the day before the hearing. Ms. Ayanna Pressley (D-NY) defended the work of the committee as legitimate, since the Trump Foundation, for example, defrauded its donors. Mr. Justin Amash (R-MI) distinguished himself by sounding reasonable, which seemed to be out of reach for his Republican colleagues. And Mr. Hice (R-GA) distinguished himself by being an ordained pastor who seems not to believe in redemption. He was one of the more ferocious critics of Cohen, and accused him of having prepared his testimony in cahoots with Democrats Cummings, Schiff and Steyer, all to bring down Trump.

The hearing confirmed what we all knew: Trump behaved in unethical, possibly criminal ways. The devil, however, is in the details, and armies of lawyers will debate what is known as fact, then debate some more on what is an impeachable offense and lastly on whether a sitting president can be indicted. This hearing was no final shot – rather, it is the first salvo in what may be a long process. Mueller’s report, assuming it can conclusively prove criminal behavior, cannot come soon enough.

Disclaimer in first paragraph.

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