Democrats spent Thursday sorting through a torrent of information about potential fraud and other crimes provided in hours of gripping public testimony from President Donald Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen.
Much of that detail was generated by sharp, efficient questioning from some of the party’s freshest faces – not just prominent freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez but also her peer Rep. Katie Hill and second-termers Rep. Ro Khanna and Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi.
Those lawmakers – along with one Republican whose pointed questions set him apart from the rest of his party – told CNN significant preparation went into their questioning, including poring over Oversight committee resources, getting briefings from the committee staff, and consulting with outside experts, family members and colleagues about how best to elicit information during the blockbuster hearing.
In congressional hearings, lawmakers often opt for a variety of approaches: some deliver speeches in an attempt to get a point across, others hammer down on a specific point of interest, and still others try to fit as many questions as possible in their limited allotted time. On Wednesday, this group of Democrats proved some strategies are more effective than others.
Krishnamoorthi said he put a lot of time into preparation. “I got up at 4:00 in the morning and just read everything I could,” he said. “We’d been working on the outline for a couple of days. It’s interesting how long you’re working on an outline for just five minutes of questioning.”
In preparing for the hearing, Khanna, a lawyer, said he turned to an old friend, former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti, who is now a legal analyst for CNN.
“Renato was a law school roommate of mine and he knows everything about these hearings,” Khanna told CNN on Thursday. “I spent a good amount of time talking to him. He’s a former prosecutor and so he said, speak less, ask more questions, speak slowly, don’t give a long preamble, don’t be a politician.”
That approach elicited one of the most notable interactions during Cohen’s appearance. Khanna’s questions led Cohen to openly accuse Trump, his son Donald Trump Jr., and Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg of committing fraud by repaying Cohen for $130,000 in hush money given during the presidential campaign to adult film actress Stormy Daniels, who claims she had an affair with Trump in 2006.
“Are you telling us, Mr. Cohen, that the President directed transactions in conspiracy with Allen Weisselberg and his son Donald Trump Jr. as part of a criminal conspiracy of financial fraud. Is that your testimony today?” Khanna asked.
“Yes,” Cohen replied. Asked whether he knew if the matter, which Khanna described as “garden variety financial fraud,” was being investigated by the Southern District of New York, Cohen declined to answer because “it could be part of investigations currently ongoing.”
Mariotti said the best congressional questioners save time by cutting out long speeches at the beginning of their five minutes and avoid interrupting witnesses while they answer questions.
Both Mariotti and Khanna cited freshman Ocasio-Cortez’s approach as a success during Wednesday’s hearing.
“Ocasio did really well, again, in asking questions and establishing a basis for the taxes,” Khanna said when asked whose questioning stuck out to him the most.
The congresswoman used her time late in the hearing to build on the case for subpoenaing Trump’s tax returns, asking Cohen to confirm reports about Trump deflating the value of his assets to avoid paying more in real estate taxes.
She also asked follow-up questions designed to identify other potential witnesses – “Who else knows that the President did this?” – and received a clear result when Cohen pointed to Weisselberg and two other Trump associates.
In an interview Thursday with CNN, Ocasio-Cortez credited the Oversight committee staff for helping prepare members for the hearing,
She added that as a freshman, her time to speak came later than more senior members, which meant she tailored her approach based on what had already been discussed. “You prepare a lot, but then you also have to be very adaptable during the actual process,” she said in a hallway interview on Thursday.
Ocasio-Cortez also returned Khanna’s compliment by singling out his performance.
“Representative Khanna had an amazing line of questioning,” she told CNN. “I don’t think what he did is getting talked about enough.”
Republicans, many of whom ceded their time during the hearing to ranking member Jim Jordan, primarily avoided conversations that could be damaging to Trump and attacked Cohen’s character. Cohen has been sentenced to three years in prison for tax fraud, bank fraud, and campaign finance violations, and he has admitted to lying to Congress in previous testimony.
But Republican Rep. Justin Amash, a libertarian who often splits with the rest of his party, stood out. First giving a disclaimer that he wasn’t sure whether to trust Cohen, Amash asked a question that left Cohen nearly speechless: “What is the truth that you know President Trump fears most?”
“That’s a tough question, sir,” Cohen replied after some thought. “I don’t have an answer for that one.”
Amash told CNN on Thursday he didn’t coordinate with his fellow Republicans before the hearing, though he did inform Jordan, a fellow House Freedom Caucus member, of the general direction he would be taking.
“It was an opportunity to conduct oversight and gather information. I believed it was best to give Mr. Cohen room to talk about his relationship with the President,” said Amash. “My staff and I drafted some ideas based on my approach, and I asked my brothers, who also are lawyers, for suggestions. I narrowed the list of questions the night before and during the hearing.”