Michael Cohen brought a series of bombshell allegations to his appearance Wednesday before the House Oversight and Reform Committee – and touched off a bizarre partisan battle in the room. CNN’s commentators weigh in on the hearing. The opinions expressed here are their own.
David Axelrod: Why did Trump need to employ a professional liar?
Michael Cohen is a certifiable liar. That much we know because he has pleaded guilty to it, and the Republicans on the House Committee on Oversight and Reform reminded us of it incessantly during Wednesday’s committee hearing.
The viewers will have to judge how much, if any, of Cohen’s testimony about President Donald Trump they accept. But I found the frantic efforts of Trump’s rabid defenders to dismiss Cohen as a “pathological criminal” curious in one major respect: This is the same man Donald Trump kept by his side for a decade, to handle his most sensitive assignments — to handle clandestine deals and make bad stories go away.
Cohen was Trump’s fixer. Even Trump’s admirers referred to him that way. There is no textbook on how one qualifies for that position, but fidelity to truth decidedly isn’t one of them.
Listening to Cohen today describe the tasks Trump assigned to him, it occurred to me that lying was an essential demand of the job. Allegedly: inflating or deflating Trump’s financials to suit his needs; creating a subterfuge to hide from scrutinizing eyes the payments to Trump’s mistresses (Trump denies they were); arranging for a phony buyer to bid up Trump’s portrait in an auction only to buy it back with funds from Trump’s now shuttered charity.
Who do you assign such tasks? A Boy Scout? A nun?
With their choreographed outrage over Cohen’s unreliability as a witness, Republicans on the committee hoped to blunt the impact of his testimony and turn the whole affair into a partisan food fight. Cohen aided their mission by offering an opening statement laced with unnecessary and gratuitous barbs about Trump’s character. (His lawyers did him no favors by including the acid language and extraneous charges.)
But make no mistake: the Republicans on the oversight committee, who spent two years overlooking alleged wrongdoing by the president, would have been fine if Cohen had kept on lying on Trump’s behalf.
It’s that the erstwhile fixer went rogue and shared some potentially damning truths about his old boss that had them, and the White House, in such a tizzy.
David Axelrod, a CNN commentator, was senior adviser to President Barack Obama and chief strategist for the 2008 and 2012 Obama presidential campaigns.
Roxanne Jones: The American people lost – again
Ashamed for America. That’s how I felt as the Michael Cohen testimony began. It was an embarrassing congressional clown show. Disrespectful men, yelling at one another, throwing insults, bullying the witness, shouting over the House Oversight Committee chairman, Democrat Elijah Cummings.
And in this instance, the man at the center of the hearing was not at fault. Out of all the people in the room, Cohen – who is heading to prison for lying to cover up President Donald Trump’s (alleged) misdeeds – sounded like the most honest voice at the table.
The hearings were sabotaged. Republicans wanted to make it about Cohen and the lies that are sending him to prison – not any possible misconduct by President Trump. And they succeeded.
None of this serves the American people. But being honest with the American people about possible presidential misconduct should be bigger than party politics. Americans don’t care (any longer) about the salacious details of Trump’s alleged marital affairs with porn stars (he denies them), or his racist comments – which we’ve heard on our own ad nauseam since Trump began his run for the White House. None of that is illegal.
We want to know if there is evidence that Trump broke the law. Did he commit bank fraud, campaign finance fraud? Other crimes? Those are critical questions. And we deserve to know the truth about these issues.
Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Missouri) had it right when he tried to get the hearings back on track, talking about Trump’s finances. Clay used his time to ask direct questions about evidence Cohen gave about financial documents the President had submitted to banks and others: “Did the president ever provide inflated assets to a bank in order to help him obtain a loan?” Clay asked. Cohen said he did.
“These documents and others were provided to Deutsche Bank on one occasion in which I was with him in our attempt to obtain money so that we can put a bid on the Buffalo Bills,” Cohen said. But Clay’s line of questioning was derailed by bullying Republican voices.
Loudmouth Republicans may have won this round in the Trump investigation, but the truth lost. And the American people lost, again.
Roxanne Jones, a founding editor of ESPN Magazine and former vice president at ESPN, has been a producer, reporter and editor at the New York Daily News and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Jones is co-author of “Say it Loud: An Illustrated History of the Black Athlete.” She talks politics, sports and culture weekly on Philadelphia’s Praise 107.9 FM
Scott Jennings: Don’t rely on Cohen testimony for the truth
Republicans look at Michael Cohen the same way they look at fired FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe and others who attack President Donald Trump – as disgraced, unreliable narrators with something to personally gain from slamming the President.
Cohen’s heel turn came after federal prosecutors caught him lying to Congress and breaking several laws, including tax evasion and lying to financial institutions. Many Republicans will ask themselves – if you lie to Congress once, why are you allowed to come back and try again? Would I get this same do-over feting if I had lied under oath?
To ignore or completely dismiss Cohen’s words and allegations would be a mistake, however. As smarmy and unreliable as he is, the issues Cohen raised will be used by Democrats to potentially pursue articles of impeachment against the President and are obviously under consideration by the Special Counsel and other federal prosecutors.
Wednesday’s testimony was yet another reminder that the only person who matters is Robert Mueller. He’s already heard everything Cohen had to say and is best positioned to decide whether Cohen’s story is credible.
Ignore Cohen’s petty personal asides. Ignore the partisan Democrats bloviations. And wait for a reliable narrator — Robert Mueller — to give us the truth.
Scott Jennings, a CNN contributor, is a former special assistant to President George W. Bush and former campaign adviser to Sen. Mitch McConnell. He is a partner at RunSwitch Public Relations in Louisville, Kentucky. Follow him on Twitter @ScottJenningsKY.
Peniel Joseph: Having a ‘black friend’ doesn’t erase Trump’s contemptible record on race
Michael Cohen’s bombshell testimony before the House Oversight Committee revealed painful truths about President Donald Trump’s personal contempt for African-Americans. Cohen, the President’s onetime lawyer, protector and confidant, openly admitted to feelings of shame for their longtime association and openly confirmed what Trump’s hostility toward nonwhite people has always suggested. “He is a racist,” said Cohen.
The White House was prepared for such allegations, with Lynne Patton, an African-American event planner turned Trump family surrogate and Housing and Urban Development official, attending the hearing. Republican Mark Meadows invited Patton to stand while he argued in Trump’s defense, a move that prompted a sharp rebuke from Democrat Rashida Tlaib and angry rejoinders back from Meadows. Their heated dispute forced an extended and emotional mediation from committee Chairman Elijah Cummings. None of that alters the Trump administration’s apparent belief that Patton’s very appearance as one of the few black Americans proudly trumpeting their relationship to the President would serve to refute Cohen’s charges of racism. It does nothing of the kind.
Cohen’s testimony, which covered a broad range of subjects, ultimately broadened our national understanding of the President’s level of antipathy toward black folk (a claim several GOP congressmen took pains to deny). In the comfort of friends, if we believe Cohen’s testimony, Trump called black people too unintelligent to vote for him and asserted that all nations led by black leaders were “shitholes.” While some of these claims are impossible to corroborate in a word for word fashion, Trump has already been caught on record using that same expletive when discussing African and Third World countries. Nothing and no one – including Lynne Patton – can erase that.
Peniel Joseph is the Barbara Jordan Chair in Ethics and Political Values and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also a professor of history. He is the author of several books, most recently “Stokely: A Life.”
Jen Psaki: A refreshing moment of civility and grace
Michael Cohen’s testimony before the House Oversight Committee left Democrats with a critical road map for additional subpoenas and possible investigations into issues ranging from taxes to insurance fraud.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who focused on questions surrounding President Trump’s finances, proved herself to be adept at not just social media engagement, but at hearing questioning.
But there was one particular moment during the seven-hour hearing that served as a reminder of the survival of civility and grace in Washington. It came from committee Chairman Elijah Cummings, who mediated an argument between Rep. Rashida Tlaib and Rep. Mark Meadows.
The tense exchange was prompted by Tlaib, who questioned Meadows’ bizarre and misguided attempt to push back against Cohen’s claims that Trump is a racist by inviting an African-American staffer to the hearing. After a heated back-and-forth between Tlaib and Meadows, who both accused the other of racism, Cummings jumped in.
Cummings didn’t jump in the fray to get his word in. He calmly reminded the committee that he was a son of former sharecroppers before adding that Tlaib was not calling Meadows a racist and that Meadows was one of his best friends on the committee.
After hearing hours of testimony with example after example of why Trump is unfit to be President and why Americans across the political spectrum have every right to be angry, it was refreshing to see the temperature taken down just for a moment.
Jen Psaki, a CNN political commentator, was the White House communications director and State Department spokeswoman during the Obama administration. She is vice president of communications and strategy at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Follow her on Twitter at @jrpsaki.
James Gagliano: We don’t have to like Michael Cohen to believe Michael Cohen
Reports of President Donald Trump’s impending political doom have long been exaggerated – until now. A President who has enjoyed an inexplicable defiance of political gravity is now in danger of being ousted from office, followed by tangible criminal legal exposure.
With the testimony of his former personal attorney and fixer Michael Cohen now on full display for the American public, I foresee two possibilities.
First, Trump will be, and should be, impeached for violations of federal campaign finance law related to hush money payments to an adult film star. And, second, once stripped of the protections of his office, he will be and should be indicted in a legal jurisdiction with venue and standing, for fraud and corruption related to various business dealings, his conduct during the 2016 campaign and alleged misuse of charitable funds. (Trump still denies any and all wrongdoing.)
We don’t have to like Michael Cohen. We don’t have to pretend he isn’t a convicted felon headed to prison for lying to Congress. Cooperating witnesses always come with “baggage.” It takes a thief to catch a thief, as the saying goes.
But for the nonpartisan, discerning viewer, it is impossible to combine Cohen’s damning testimony with the related indictments and convictions previously generated by the special prosecutor and the Justice Department and not appreciate that the presidential goose is cooked.
James A. Gagliano is a CNN law enforcement analyst and a retired FBI supervisory special agent. He also is an adjunct assistant professor at St. John’s University in Queens, New York. Follow him on Twitter: @JamesAGagliano.
Kerra Bolton: By acknowledging his failures, Cohen is changing ‘I’m sorry’ for the better
Michael Cohen’s testimony could change the way we think of public apologies. In this age of scandal, we’re used to brands like Gucci and Burberry apologizing for racist fashions. Celebrities like Louis CK apologize for appalling behavior. But usually they appear to be saying “I’m sorry” for legal and purposes – without having to demonstrate that they’re actually sorry.
It’s a press release and a momentary blip. Not a real mea culpa. I should know – I spent nearly 20 years as a political journalist, party staffer and later a public relations consultant myself.
Cohen pleaded guilty in November to violating campaign finance laws, financial crimes, and lying to Congress in two separate prosecutions. He’s going to jail and he isn’t shying away from it. Unlike brand apologies like Gucci and Burberry, Cohen admits his actions are part of the problem. In his statement, he seemingly takes responsibility for his actions and he’s come to Congress to atone.
Cohen is changing the game by confronting his critics head on and reframing a redemption arc that could serve him well when he is released from prison. His testimony confirms both the best and worst of what many in the public suspect about President Donald Trump while offering concrete facts. Cohen’s statements to Congress could change the way we apologize because they set up the apology as a beginning, or at least a continuation – not the end – of a conversation and healing.
Kerra Bolton is the founder of Unmuted Consulting, a strategic political communications consultancy. She is also a freelance writer and former political reporter and analyst in North Carolina.
Jeff Yang: Any watcher of ‘Law and Order’ can see through the GOP’s strategy
There’s something truly bizarre in watching Republican congressmen try to impugn Michael Cohen by calling him a thug, a liar, a narcissist and a fraud who’ll do and say anything to get ahead. It’s as if Cohen wasn’t already all of those things when Donald Trump hand-picked him to serve as his personal attorney and fixer over a decade ago.
(As rapper Talib Kweli pointed out on Twitter, they’re exactly why Trump hired him.)
The GOP strategy is made odder by the fact that these are the very same epithets that a host of former associates have consistently used to describe Trump himself. In essence, the GOP is using its question time to repeatedly remind America that birds of a feather hire personal attorneys from the same damn flock.
Perhaps more critically, Republicans seem to have forgotten that flipping henchmen on their bosses is the basic means by which law enforcement has broken up mob families and criminal conspiracies since time immemorial. Viewers who’ve grown up on “The Sopranos” and “Law and Order” are fully aware of this tactic.
As a result, the righteous tone of their attacks on Cohen’s credibility speak more to their fear of going down with the sinking Trump yacht than to any interest in serving justice – or their constituents.
Jeff Yang is a frequent contributor to CNN Opinion, a featured writer for Quartz and other publications, and the co-host of the podcast “They Call Us Bruce.” He co-wrote Jackie Chan’s best-selling autobiography, “I Am Jackie Chan,” and is the editor of three graphic novels: “Secret Identities,” “Shattered” and the forthcoming “New Frontiers.”
Alice Stewart: This hearing will not change any minds
Michael Cohen’s testimony to the House Oversight and Reform Committee Wednesday proved to be nothing more than a Rorschach test for observers of President Trump. Cohen did not move the needle and people will continue to see what they want to see about the President.
Convicted liar Cohen said of Trump: “He is a racist. He is a con man. He is a cheat.” Trump critics who believed that before the hearing will still believe it. Trump supporters will reject the characterization and re-affirm their support of the President.
Jailhouse religion and personal revenge was alive and well on Capitol Hill as Cohen condemned the very actions he willingly participated in and profited from during the decade he worked as President Trump’s personal lawyer.
The political implications of testimony from the man with his hands on the hush money remain to be seen. The bottom line is: Voters will view Cohen’s comments about the President through two lenses – as personally embarrassing and potentially illegal.
President Trump’s comments about women and minorities – including his alleged reference to “shithole countries”– and about his political opponents are disturbing. It’s disappointing he didn’t check much of this kind of rhetoric at the White House door. While ill-advised, it’s not illegal.
The legal question, however, is right around the corner with the conclusion of the special counsel’s investigation. One thing’s for sure – the Mueller report will not be a Rorschach test. Nothing will be left up to interpretation.
Alice Stewart is a CNN political commentator and former communications director for Ted Cruz for President.