Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and co-author with Kevin Kruse of the new book “Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
President Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen made a series of shocking allegations about the commander in chief Wednesday.
As the President spent his day overseas trying to reach a historic deal with the North Koreans, Cohen painted a portrait of a leader who has engaged in all sorts of fraud, broke campaign finance laws, associated with devious figures, knew of the dirty and possibly illegal tricks being done by some members of his campaign and who instructed associates like Cohen to intimidate people who were perceived as a threat.
As if that was not enough, Cohen alleged that the President is a racist. (All of these allegations have been denied by the White House or by the President’s GOP defenders.)
But will the hearings change public opinion?
The Republicans on the Oversight Committee gave a pretty good indication of why President Trump’s base is unlikely to move even a little. They essentially are in tune with Trump’s statement from 2016: “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.”
Throughout their questioning of Cohen, the Republicans showed absolutely no interest in probing the issues that were raised about the President.
They spent the entire time attacking Cohen’s behavior and making insinuations about the Democratic-led hearings themselves. Republicans took every opportunity to remind the public that Cohen is on his way to prison, in part for lying to Congress. They used Cohen’s lawyer and former Clinton associate, Lanny Davis, and suggestions about mysterious forces funding him, as the bogeyman to allege that Cohen’s testimony was politically motivated.
The actual substance of the charges, which have not only been raised by Cohen but have come from multiple investigations, were of no interest. Republicans didn’t want to listen to his answers and used this opportunity to grandstand for their voters. Their performance reveals how many of Trump’s most loyal Republicans will certainly act.
But that does not mean that portions of the Republican Party outside the base can’t be moved by congressional hearings. After all, what motivates their ongoing support for President Trump is much more about partisan interests than loyalty. This means he is not invulnerable. It would be possible to turn segments of the party against him if he has taken actions that they feel are too risky.
The first tangible evidence that defections are possible since the passage of the Russians sanctions legislation in 2017, were the 13 Republicans who voted with House Democrats to pass a resolution seeking to revoke his emergency power to build a wall.
It was also clear to President Trump during the final days of the shutdown that his time for that battle was over: either he agreed to pass a budget resolution or the Republicans would move forward without him. With the midterms only a few months behind them and polls showing that Trump is struggling in the battleground states which were key to his victory, such as Wisconsin and Michigan, Republicans are justifiably worried.
These signs of defection are certainly far from any indication that he is at any risk with his own party.
But it would be a mistake to discount the potential for full-blown hearings to change the dynamics within the Republican Party and to further damage Trump’s standing with independent voters. The testimony of Michael Cohen alone won’t do the trick. He is a severely flawed witness given his record, and his words alone cannot paint a damning picture of the administration to Republicans who remain focused on victory in 2020.
Committee Republicans demonstrated that they have no interest in listening. The conservative media, which didn’t exist when Richard Nixon was president, will be spinning the day’s events a million different ways, in Trump’s favor.
However, robust hearings can matter. Seeing and hearing the major players in a scandal is much different than reading about them or seeing a prosecutorial report.
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The gold standard remains the Watergate committee that did have the effect, over a period of many weeks and with numerous witnesses, to break down the Republican support that President Nixon continued to count on until the very end. The congressional hearings and investigations were successful in that they helped legislators in both parties gain a fuller picture of what the Nixon White House was about and to put the original sin, the break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters, into a larger context.
Some of the outcome in 2019 will depend on the Democrats and how far they are willing to go to ensure accountability and pursue a full-blown investigation, even at the risk of political backlash.