Washington • In Michael Cohen’s historic testimony Wednesday, there was a moment when the long-lost spines of President Trump’s political enablers, probably heaped in a clattering pile somewhere, must have felt a chill. It was when Cohen looked at his Republican inquisitors and foretold their future.
"I did the same thing you are doing now for 10 years," Cohen said, sounding like an Old Testament prophet. "I protected Mr. Trump for 10 years. ... And I can only warn [that] people that follow Mr. Trump as I did, blindly, are going to suffer the same consequences that I'm suffering. ... Look at what's happened to me. I had a wonderful life. I have a beautiful wife. I have two amazing children. I achieved financial success by the age of 39. I didn't go to work for Mr. Trump because I had to. I went to work for him because I wanted to. And I have lost it all."
Cohen’s warning was ignored by those present. But his revelations advanced the inevitable day of reckoning — for Trump, his family and his party.
Early in his opening statement before the House Oversight Committee, Cohen gave a description of Trump that will go down in the annals of congressional testimony: "He is a racist, he is a con man and he is a cheat." Incredibly, none of the Republicans on the panel even tried to refute the claim that the president of the United States is, in his essence, an unscrupulous grifter.
One of them, Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., did make a clueless and embarrassing attempt to defend Trump against the charge of racism. He brought out Lynne Patton — an African-American friend of the Trump family who, with utterly no relevant qualifications or experience, was given a high-ranking job in the Department of Housing and Urban Development — as evidence that Trump is not a racist. Patton stood silently in the background, like an artifact on exhibit. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., was absolutely right to slam Meadows for using a black woman as “a prop.”
For the record, it's entirely possible to have a black friend and still be a racist. If you can't or won't understand that fact, you may be a racist yourself. But I digress.
Another Republican made a weak attempt to challenge Cohen on one of his more sensational claims — that Trump never expected to win the presidency and instead saw his campaign as the "greatest infomercial in political history." But there was no real effort to dispute Cohen's many specific charges against Trump or even to question his shocking portrait of the man he once idolized.
Instead, the GOP strategy was to follow the old courtroom adage: If the facts are against you, pound the law. If the law is against you, pound the facts. And if both are against you, pound the table.
Oh, the table-pounding! Republicans found it outrageous that Cohen, whose admitted crimes include having once lied to Congress, was being allowed to sit there and testify, rather than, I don't know, being dragged down to the basement and horsewhipped. How could anyone ever believe anything he had to say?
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, was so overwrought that I feared he might pull a muscle when he briefly thought he'd caught Cohen in a lie on a boilerplate witness form. It turned out that Jordan was wrong — Cohen filled in the form correctly — and all the congressman injured was his pride.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the committee's chairman, did a masterful job of presiding over the circus. He saved his best for last, ending the hearing with a closing statement that appealed to the better angels of our nature, wherever they might be hiding. "We're better than this," he thundered. And I so hope he's right.
But I fear there will be darkness before the dawn.
Thanks largely to clever, substantive questioning by junior Democrats — New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez being perhaps the cleverest — there are new leads to follow. Cohen spoke of a whispered exchange between Trump and his son Donald Jr. that suggests, but does not prove, that Trump colluded with the Russians. Cohen said the Trump Organization committed insurance fraud and was involved in other unspecified criminal activity. He gave the House Democratic majority ample reason to subpoena Trump's income taxes.
But the Trump he described was even more ruthless, selfish, amoral, dishonest and insecure — more unfit to be president — than we could have imagined. Getting him out of office is an urgent task for our democracy. We must be up to it.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is email@example.com