Watching the Republicans strenuously berate Michael Cohen as he appeared before the House Oversight Committee, it was clear that they had no idea who this New York character is or what his testimony means. They couldn’t grasp that further diminishing the already disgraced attorney could not separate him from the man he had represented for 10 years, and that denouncing him as a lying felon cannot rehabilitate the president — because the detestable Cohen so perfectly embodies the sordid world of Donald Trump.
The Cohen moment on Capitol Hill inspired an almost eerie sense of deja vu in anyone who has ever watched a mob chieftain’s trial or a congressional hearing on organized crime. With their exaggerated indignation and their recitations of witness lies and sins, the Republicans on the House panel sounded just like Mafia defense lawyers impugning a rat witness. And in their morality play, Cohen fit the role of a Mafia capo who has turned on his old boss.
The timeworn strategy of discrediting an associate to exonerate the accused is rarely effective, however, for a very simple reason routinely explained by federal prosecutors: Convicting a bad guy almost always requires the testimony of another bad guy, because nobody else has firsthand knowledge of the crimes in question. Just look up the trial of the late John Gotti, or the Senate hearings on organized-crime influence on labor unions — where the key witnesses had perpetrated crimes far worse than tax evasion or bank fraud.
So the more that the Republicans emphasized the dishonesty and criminality of Cohen, the more they impeached the character of his former client.
But there was a deeper problem in the Republican strategy, which relied heavily on the unflattering descriptions of Cohen in a sentencing memorandum filed by the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York. Over and over again, a GOP committee member would cite the Southern District prosecutors to underline Cohen’s offenses and condemn his character — a gambit that the witness hardly disputed.
If the Republicans say we must attend to what the Southern District filing said about Cohen, how about its description of “Individual 1,” identified beyond doubt in Wednesday’s testimony as Donald J. Trump. Recounting the scheme to hush up Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal with payoffs via the National Enquirer, that harsh sentencing memo explains clearly:
With respect to both payments, Cohen acted with the intent to influence the 2016 presidential election. Cohen coordinated his actions with one or more members of the campaign, including through meetings and phone calls, about the fact, nature, and timing of the payments. In particular, and as Cohen himself has now admitted, with respect to both payments, he acted in coordination with and at the direction of Individual-1.
At the hearing, Cohen also produced two checks, each for $35,000 — one bearing the distinctive signature of Donald J. Trump, and another signed by Donald J. Trump Jr. and the COO of the Trump Organization — that proved he was telling the truth about the reimbursement scheme.
Somehow, none of the Republican committee members mentioned that damning paragraph; in fact, none of them mentioned “Individual-1” at all. Nevertheless, Individual-1 made big news at the hearing, even though he was dining in Vietnam with his buddy Kim Jong Un.
The moment came when Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., asked specifically about Cohen’s most recent conversation with the president. His answer must have sent a chill clear across the Pacific: “Unfortunately, this topic is actually something that’s being investigated right now by the Southern District of New York, and I’ve been asked by them not to discuss.” Krishnamoorthi pressed him, asking whether Cohen knows of “any other wrongdoing or illegal act” by the president.” The president’s former lawyer replied, “Yes, and again, those are part of the investigation that’s currently being looked at by the Southern District of New York.”
Whatever report may arrive from the Office of Special Counsel in coming days, Trump’s troubles are far from over.