Normally, presidents who are in trouble exploit historic foreign policy moments to associate themselves with the majesty of their office and demonstrate their seriousness of purpose.
Only President Trump could use his encounter with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un to reinforce some of the worst things his former lawyer Michael Cohen said about him in congressional testimony on Wednesday.
Nothing Trump does should surprise us anymore, yet it was still shocking that the man who holds an office once associated with the words “leader of the free world” would refer to a murderous dictator as “my friend.” It’s clear by now that Trump feels closest to autocrats and is uneasy with truly democratic leaders, as Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, among others, has learned.
The president's apparatchiks also gave us an instructive hint as to what an unrestrained Trump might do to the free press. They excluded White House reporters Jonathan Lemire of the Associated Press and Jeff Mason of Reuters from the press pool covering the dinner between Trump and Kim for daring to ask inconvenient questions of our country's elected leader. This wasn't the work of Kim or Vietnam's authoritarian government. It was the imperious action of a man who wishes he could live without the accountability that free government imposes.
It was an appropriate prelude to the attempt of Republicans on the House Oversight Committee — from the moment the committee’s chairman, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., gaveled Wednesday’s hearing to order — to use procedural maneuvers to block Cohen’s testimony. The Democratic majority swept the GOP motion aside, signaling the end to an unaccountable Trump presidency.
"The days of this committee protecting the president at all costs are over," Cummings declared.
The GOP Congress' obsequiousness toward Trump has been costly to the country. And it's no wonder that the president's apologists sought to keep Cohen from speaking to a national audience.
His testimony was damaging to Trump both personally — "He is a racist. He is a conman. He is a cheat." — and legally, since it opened new avenues of inquiry.
Cohen alleged that Trump was informed by his longtime friend Roger Stone of a WikiLeaks dump of emails that could harm Hillary Clinton.
This was not dispositive about whether Trump directly colluded with Russia — Cohen was careful about this in replying to Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., who was badly hurt by the stolen emails. But as The Washington Post's Philip Bump noted, Cohen's testimony means that "the distance between the candidate and Russia's interference efforts is much shorter than realized."
Cohen also testified that Trump, as president, continued to reimburse him for the costs of hush money payments to two women who said they had affairs with Trump. This moves the issue of whether Trump broke campaign finance laws into the White House itself.
And Cohen said that Trump "knew of and directed" negotiations over building a Trump Tower in Moscow throughout the campaign, further enmeshing the president with Russian interests — and with efforts to mislead voters in 2016 about his Russian ties.
These and other Cohen claims and revelations underscore how much time has been lost because Republicans ignored their obligation to get to the bottom of the many allegations enveloping Trump.
Their past evasions are of a piece with the convoluted intellectual somersaults they are now performing to protect him. The utter irresponsibility of the House over the last two years — the Senate Intelligence Committee was far more diligent, though still cautious — meant that public accountability was largely confined to Special Counsel Robert Mueller's probe and journalistic investigations.
Having successfully prevented Congress from acting forcefully, the Trump camp is now saying that if Mueller does not find utterly devastating smoking-gun evidence of collusion, Democrats who control the House should shelve all further inquiries and move on.
What’s forgotten is the profound difference between the Trump case and the Watergate experience. Congressional hearings into Richard Nixon behavior were held simultaneously with a special prosecutor’s investigations. What brought Nixon down were the tapes of his White House conversations orchestrating the cover-up. And we learned of the tapes when his aide Alexander Butterfield revealed their existence, first to Senate staffers and then at an open hearing. Congress, not the special prosecutor, forced Nixon to resign.
Their fear that this might happen again is why House Republicans worked so hard to delegitimize Wednesday's hearings. They and Trump would prefer Congress (and the media) to leave us in the dark. Fortunately, we do not live in North Korea.
E.J. Dionne writes about politics in a twice-weekly column for The Washington Post. He is a government professor at Georgetown University, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution and a frequent commentator on politics for National Public Radio and MSNBC. He is most recently a co-author of “One Nation After Trump.”