Critic's Notebook: GOP Obsesses Over a Michael Cohen Book or Movie Deal

Michael Cohen testifies before the House Oversight Committee on Capitol Hill February 27 2019 - Getty - H 2019
Chip Somodevilla/Getty

The former Trump lawyer presented a devastating litany of his ex-employer's crimes, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez rose to the occasion and Republicans refused to listen.

You couldn't stop the Republicans from doggedly pursuing the truth during Michael Cohen's testimony before the House Oversight Committee on Wednesday. They dug in relentlessly, probing the witness for everything he knew about a litany of crimes. Unfortunately, the only crimes they were interested in were the ones for which Cohen had already been tried and sentenced to prison, not the ones possibly committed by President Donald Trump about which Cohen is in a unique position to know.

The hearing was the latest example of our depressingly politically polarized times, when accountability is less important than closing ranks. With barely one or two exceptions, the Republicans spent their time attacking Cohen rather than asking relevant questions about his serious accusations against the president. They all seemed to be auditioning for future cabinet positions (well, at least acting cabinet positions). They repeatedly expressed moral outrage that a man of such low character, a certified liar no less, would even be allowed within the halls of Congress. (Because the real place for such a person is clearly the Oval Office.) Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) encapsulated the dignity of the proceedings by taunting Cohen, "Liar, liar, pants on fire!"

Not that it was much easier to watch the Democrats in action. Speaking to a figure for whom they would have expressed only revulsion not that long ago, they were obsequious to a fault, addressing Cohen in warm, soothing tones and endlessly thanking him for his brave testimony. As the daylong proceedings wore on and on, you expected them to offer him a pot of tea and a bubble bath.

Do these hearings really need to be such marathons? Each committee member, and there are 42 in all, is allotted five minutes, and each one made the most of it. It didn't matter that the questions, or more often the hectoring editorial commentary, became utterly redundant. It was more important that each congressperson got his or her moment in the spotlight to impress his or her constituents.

A refreshing exception was Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), who demonstrated that she's much more than a pie-in-the-sky Green New Dealer with her incisive, pointed questioning about Trump's finances and tax returns. (Republicans will probably criticize her anyway for the clothes she wore while asking them.)

It became clear that some of her colleagues, on the other hand, had nothing either to say or to ask, but merely wanted the opportunity to boast to friends and family, "Hey, I'm on TV!" By the time Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX) declared, "This is an embarrassment to our country!" more than four hours in, you couldn't help but agree.

But not for the reasons he was claiming. Rather, it was because the proceedings were so nakedly partisan. Cohen came armed with serious allegations, and had documents to back them up, which will no doubt be driving the news cycle for weeks to come. But the Republicans had no interest in such apparently mundane matters as the president's advance knowledge of the infamous Trump Tower meeting, the WikiLeaks drop of Hillary's emails, the National Enquirer's "Catch and Kill" method of squashing potentially damaging news stories and Cohen's testimony before Congress, in which he lied about the Moscow Trump Tower project.

No, they were more intent on learning about Cohen's silly Twitter account promoting himself, his contacts with foreign entities and his taxi medallion ownership. Many of them were fixated on his potential upcoming book and movie deals, making so many detailed inquiries that you began to suspect what they really wanted to know was the name of his agent. Their endless declarations that Cohen wasn't a reliable witness because of his past criminal actions was ably rebutted by Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA), who pointed out, "This Congress has historically relied on all kinds of shady figures who turned." As an example, he cited Joseph Valachi, the gangster who exposed the existence of the Cosa Nostra. (And those hearings were probably far more dignified.)

Cohen, with his perpetual hangdog expression, somehow managed to react calmly to the repeated attacks, although you could tell his inner Roy Cohn was desperate to break free. Asked numerous times if he would commit to not profiting from book or movie deals in the future, he blithely answered, "No," making evident his disdain for the disingenuous question. When sarcastically congratulated for being the first convicted liar to return to testify before Congress, he immediately shot back, "Thank you." The only time he seemed genuinely offended was when it was suggested that he was bitter over being rejected for a White House job. Cohen affirmed numerous times that he never wanted one, sounding like a man claiming not to be interested in the woman who just rejected his advances.

The hearing was actually nearly over before it began. Ranking member Mark Meadows (R-NC), a politician so rabidly pro-Trump that he probably embarrasses even Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, made a failed motion to postpone it because, horrors, they hadn't received Cohen's opening statement early enough. The statement, subsequently read by Cohen in the cadences of a beaten man who knows that he made the wrong choices in life yet would probably do so again if he had the chance, was a doozy. He described his former boss Trump thusly: "He is a racist. He is a conman. He is a cheat." It was three syllables short of a haiku, but poetic nonetheless.

Cohen also provided the fascinating detail that Trump had ordered him to threaten legal action against his high school, colleges and the College Board should they release his grades or SAT scores. (Up to now, I've primarily been interested in Trump's tax returns, but these sound far more interesting.) And he said that Trump's presidency has made him the "worst version of himself," which is a pretty impressive feat considering how many there are to choose from.

Meadows was the designated attack dog, with numerous Republicans ceding some of their time to him so he could continue his verbal pummeling. At one point, he and Cohen even got into a nonsensical argument over whether or not Cohen is a "nice guy." Meadows also attempted to refute Cohen's claims about Trump's racism by trotting out a living prop in the form of a female, African-American former Trump Organization employee who silently stood by as Meadows declared that she did not believe Trump to be prejudiced.

I'd like to say that Cohen emerged as a complex, Hamlet-like figure during his testimony. But the main question his appearance brought up was, "How did this man become the personal lawyer to a billionaire rather than selling himself on subway ads to accident victims?" The Republicans on the committee kept declaring that as a convicted liar he was not to be believed. But that begged the question of his current motivation. Unlike before, when he was still working for Trump, he has no reason to lie anymore. So, his motivation has to be either redemption or revenge.

If you listen to Cohen, it's very much the former. He declared in his opening statement that his appearance was one of many "steps along a path of redemption," and he reiterated the notion every chance he got. It's tempting to believe him, if only because it makes for a good story, one perfect for the inevitable Hollywood treatment. Personally, I'm more comfortable with the revenge theory. It's more befitting Cohen's character. And considering the pathologically vengeful nature of his former employer, it seems poetic justice.

And yet, Cohen did take a major step toward redeeming himself in his closing statement, in which he recited a litany of Trump's offenses against our democracy and decency in general. He also chillingly stated that he feared "there will never be a peaceful transition of power" if Trump loses the 2020 election.

Committee chairman Elijah Cummings (D-MD) further cemented the day into history with his closing statement. It was a deeply powerful, emotional speech about the need to get our nation back to normalcy that brought Cohen, and presumably any sentient being who heard it, to tears. "We're better than this!" Cummings declared, in a pleading, urgent tone. "We're so much better than this!"

We are, but there's a long way to go before we get there.