Testifying before the House Oversight Committee on Feb. 27, Trump’s former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, brought new evidence to the investigations into the president, just as President Nixon’s attorney John Dean’s explosive testimony propelled the Watergate hearings. Former Watergate prosecutor Philip Allen Lacovara explains why Cohen’s testimony is important, and why it reminds him of Dean’s.
Washington - You had to admire the skill with which Michael Cohen attacked the character of his former boss. He had learned at the knee of a master.
There, before the House Oversight Committee and a national television audience, Cohen showed himself to be adept at insult, avaricious and boastful even in disgrace and capable of lying as easily as he breathes. Here was the monster President Trump created, very much in his own image. Though off to prison in three months, Cohen openly said he plans to write a book, indicated he would consider movie or TV deals and wouldn't commit to give away the profit.
Though ostensibly contrite for his crimes in service to Trump and to himself, he couldn't help minimize his transgressions ("no banks … ever lost a dollar with me") and regale the committee with his triumphs in Trump World: "I'm the one who started the campaign. … I am responsible. … It was my idea." What he lacked in wisdom, Cohen, like his old boss, compensated for with bluster.
But now the Fixer is trying to break Trump. "I am ashamed that I chose to take part in concealing Mr. Trump's illicit acts," he told the committee, because Trump "is a racist, he is a con man, and he is a cheat." In Trump, he said, "the bad far outweighs the good, and since taking office, he has become the worst version of himself."
Trump, he said, is unkind, ungenerous and "fundamentally disloyal," covering up affairs, trying to hide his grades, inflating his worth, giving no sign "that he loved our nation," cheating his way out of serving in Vietnam, becoming an "autocrat" and, yes, lying about his dealings with Russia and leaning on Cohen to do the same. "Donald Trump is a man who ran for office to make his brand great, not to make our country great," Cohen testified. "He had no desire or intention to lead this nation, only to market himself and to build his wealth and power."
Cohen's testimony put the committee's Republicans in an unusual position: After two years of defending or ignoring Trump's lies, they professed newfound fondness for truth.
Cohen, said Rep. Mark Green (Tenn.), is "a narcissist, a bully who cannot tell the truth."
Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio) pointed to a poster with prosecutors' descriptions of Cohen: "Consciousness of wrongdoing is fleeting. … His remorse is minimal. … His instinct to blame others is strong."
Yes, we've heard this somewhere before.
On they went, displaying no apparent self-awareness. "You're a pathological liar," said Rep. Paul A. Gosar (Ariz.) displaying a sign that read "Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire." Gosar added: "You don't know truth from falsehood."
For hours, they disparaged Cohen for doing what they excuse from his old boss: threatening people, caring only about himself and vaingloriously portraying himself as a "sexy," "handsome" and "honest guy."
Republicans glowered, sputtered and huddled. Rep. Mark Meadows (N.C.) forced a vote to try to postpone the hearing, and Jordan blurted out elements of conspiracy theories -- John Dean! Tom Steyer! The dossier! James Comey! Peter Strzok! Rod Rosenstein! -- as if talking in his sleep.
But Cohen, wearing hair product and French cuffs, also got to enjoy some adulation before his confinement. "God bless you!" one man called out when the witness entered. "You're a hero!" said another. Sixty journalists jammed in, and many more, including a frantic Japanese TV crew, chased down lawmakers in the hallway. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Tex., blocked from entering, protested: "I am a 24-year member of Congress!"
Cohen's claim that he's seeking "redemption" is suspect, and his mendacity means the threat he poses to Trump is not in anything he tells a committee but in what evidence he gave prosecutors of illegality by Trump. (He testified that he provided such information.) There's little doubt that Cohen has been the con man he accuses Trump of being; the difference may be that Trump is better at it, because he is in the White House and Cohen is going to the big house.
But one thing rang true in his testimony, because so many have been ruined similarly by service to Trump. "I'm responsible for your silliness because I did the same thing that you are doing now for 10 years: I protected Mr. Trump," Cohen told Republicans. "I can only warn people: The more people who follow Mr. Trump, as I did blindly, are going to suffer the same consequences that I'm suffering."
If there is justice, Cohen's prophecy will be fulfilled.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.