On Wednesday, President Donald Trump’s embattled attorney, Michael Cohen, testified before the House Oversight Committee in a televised hearing. For several hours, Republicans eviscerated Cohen and defended Trump as they never have before.
Sixteen months ago, Cohen addressed the House and Senate Intelligence committees to defend Trump against suggestions of impropriety regarding the president’s business interests in Russia, including a proposed Trump Tower project in Moscow. Cohen’s testimony would eventually prove disastrous for the president’s disgruntled attorney: Three months ago, Cohen pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about his communication with Russian government officials on Trump’s behalf. Robert Mueller disputed a BuzzFeed report suggesting Trump directed Cohen to deceive Congress in his Senate testimony, but Cohen spent much of his Wednesday testimony insisting that Trump indeed engaged in various illegal activities, including directing him to coordinate hush-money payments and foreign business projects during both the 2016 campaign and Trump’s unexpected presidency.
The October 2017 hearings were hardly as explosive or polarized as Cohen’s testimony before the House Oversight Committee. Cohen’s confident defiance recalled James Comey’s exit interview before the Senate Intelligence Committee in June 2017; and Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee five months ago. In January, Democrats assumed majority control of the House, and they invited Cohen to answer questions once again about Trump’s illegal dealings. Cohen seized the opportunity to repudiate Trump with cathartic force. “He is a racist, he is a con man, he is a cheat,” Cohen told the committee in his opening statement, which The New York Times and The Washington Post published the evening before Cohen appeared before Congress.
That same evening, Florida representative Matt Gaetz, another Trump loyalist, publicly threatened Cohen in a since-deleted tweet. “Hey @MichaelCohen212,” Gaetz wrote. “Do your wife & father-in-law know about your girlfriends? Maybe tonight would be a good time for that chat. I wonder if she’ll remain faithful when you’re in prison. She’s about to learn a lot.” Gaetz is hardly alone in his fervor to defend the Republican president in the extreme. Ohio representative Jim Jordan, a Trump loyalist and the ranking Republican member of the House Oversight Committee, disparaged Cohen and disputed his credibility throughout the hearing. “It’s the first time a convicted perjurer has been brought back to be a star witness in a hearing,” Jordan insisted. Jordan characterized Cohen as a “patsy” appointed by Congressional Democrats in their mounting efforts to impeach Trump. Right-wing Arizona representative Paul Gosar chanted “Liar, liar, pants on fire” during the hearing. North Carolina representative Virginia Foxx described Cohen as “a tax evader, bank swindler, and all-around liar” who only turned on Trump in pursuit of a plea deal, a book deal, and Hollywood movie rights. The committee’s 18 Republican members resisted all potential for learning about Trump’s dealings with the Russian government, WikiLeaks, and Stormy Daniels. Frustrated, Cohen chided the committee members for advancing two hours into the hearing without asking him any questions about Trump, the former client who directed Cohen to lie to Congress in the first place.
Democrats once aspired toward a bipartisan coalition to impeach Trump: Surely Mueller’s investigation and other revelations would, at some critical phase, require Republicans to abandon the president in order to govern in good conscience. On Wednesday, Congressional Republicans dispelled these aspirations as they roasted Cohen for snitching and betraying the operation. “You didn’t do this to protect Donald Trump,” Gosar told Cohen. “You did this for you.”
Desperately—and rather hopelessly—Cohen presented himself as a sad warning to the many Congressional Republicans who might humiliate themselves, disgrace their professions, and imperil their careers to serve Trump in the extreme. Through hubris, Jordan, Gosar, and the other Republicans resisted Cohen’s easy comparison. They now defend Trump with a berserker’s vigor, if only to reward and protect themselves.