There was something sad and delusional about Michael Cohen’s insistence during a riveting day of testimony before the House Government Operations Committee that he remains, despite it all, a “good person.”
During his 30-minute opening statement, Cohen declared, in a passage that came close to defying the internal logic of the English language, “I have lied. But I am not a liar. And I have done bad things, but I am not a bad man. I have fixed things, but I am no longer your fixer, Mr. Trump.”
Later, in response to low-key questioning by maverick conservative Republican Justin Amash, Cohen said, “I’ve always tried to be a good person. I’ve tried to be a great friend.”
Cohen’s self-deception went far beyond the awkward reality — pointed out by the Republicans with the chiming regularity of Big Ben — that he is a convicted felon and disbarred lawyer who will be going to prison for three years for, among other misdeeds, lying to Congress on Donald Trump’s behalf.
The Democrats’ star witness came across as a weak, lost man who belatedly realized after 10 years of lapdog service to the real-estate hustler who is now president “that my ambition and the intoxication of Trump Tower had much to do with the bad decisions in part that I made.”
For a decade, Cohen took his direction from Trump’s lack of a moral compass. Whether it was stiffing contractors, arranging payoffs, finagling financial documents or composing comically belligerent letters on his legal stationery, Cohen did whatever ugly deeds the Trump job required.
In one of the few comic moments in the hearing, Democrat Jackie Speier ran through a series of guesses about how many threats Cohen had made on Trump’s behalf before the defrocked lawyer admitted that the number was probably more than 500.
But, for all Cohen’s failures as a human being, he proved to be something far more important Wednesday — a convincing witness.
Recognizing that the testimony of a convicted perjurer comes with certain credibility problems, Cohen backed up some of his explosive charges with documents. Despite Trump’s many denials that he knew about the hush-money payments to porn star Stormy Daniels, Cohen brought with him an Aug. 1, 2017, $35,000 reimbursement check signed with the president’s characteristic scrawl.
Cohen also recounted his first “awe-inspiring” visit to the Oval Office in 2017. But the patriotic grandeur of the moment was marred when the president told Cohen that his monthly repayments (masquerading as a legal retainer) were delayed because it took time for the checks to get to the Oval Office for Trump’s signature because they had been sent via Federal Express.
It has been nearly a half-century since these kind of sleazy high-level financial dealings have taken place within the White House.
The closest analogue in moral terms was the payoffs from Maryland real-estate developers and engineering firms that Spiro Agnew received while vice president. Beginning in early 1969, the bagman would regularly phone Agnew’s White House office to say that he had “information” for the vice president. The two men would meet and Agnew would pocket an envelope containing as much as $10,000 in cash.
It is worth noting that Agnew abandoned the vice presidency in October 1973 in plea deal to avoid being indicted for income-tax evasion and face probable imprisonment. Ten months later, Richard Nixon resigned over Watergate.
Not all of life can be buttressed with a paper trail, so some of the TNT at the hearing depended on Cohen’s assertions that could not be quickly confirmed with a canceled check, a tape recording or another document.
In his opening statement, Cohen recalled that he was listening in Trump’s personal office in July 2016 when Roger Stone — the recently indicted Republican dirty-trickster — chortled over the speaker phone that WikiLeaks was about to undermine Hillary Clinton’s campaign with a document dump. A few days later, WikiLeaks published an embarrassing set of emails lifted from the computers of the Democratic National Committee.
The only evidence so far that Trump knew in advance that something politically helpful was coming from WikiLeaks in July 2016 is Cohen’s recollection, although the former Trump lawyer hinted that federal prosecutors know far more about Stone’s connection with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
But while all of Cohen’s statements should be regarded with caution, there is a significant factor that suggests that Trump’s longtime fixer may finally be fixed on the truth.
The Republican strategy at the hearing was to repeatedly suggest, with a minimum of subtlety, that Cohen has turned on Trump solely to reap a post-prison payoff in the form of book deals and TV contracts. According to the GOP party line, Cohen will now say anything to ingratiate himself with a left-leaning conspiracy of publishers and network executives.
But throughout the hearing, Cohen went out of his way to debunk a series of popular liberal conspiracy theories, which is a strange strategy for a man who supposedly wants to be lionized by the left.
Cohen denied a recent BuzzFeed story that Trump had personally instructed him to lie to Congress about the planned Moscow Tower. Also rejected were long-standing rumors that Cohen had conspired with Russians in Prague before the election. And Cohen was unequivocal in dismissing the fanciful whispers that Trump used any form of illegal drugs.
Maybe Cohen is the liar who finally faced his moment of truth. At minimum, he dropped more breadcrumbs than Hansel and Gretel as grist for future hearings. Wednesday suggested that Trump’s year of torment is only beginning.
Walter Shapiro has covered the last 10 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale.