The Memo: Capitol Hill braces for Cohen fireworks
Congress is set for a spectacle Wednesday — one that could be either high drama or a circus — as President Trump’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen testifies in public.
The stakes are high for Cohen’s appearance before the House Oversight and Reform Committee.
According to a New York Times report on Tuesday, he will accuse Trump of potentially criminal conduct as well as the use of racist language.
His testimony could embarrass the president in the middle of Trump’s Hanoi summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un — and might provoke a volcanic response.
But if Cohen’s testimony will inevitably garner plenty of headlines and airtime, will it have any substantive political impact?
Trump is a famously polarizing figure and his approval ratings have shifted around within a relatively narrow range throughout his tenure.
Cohen looks like an unlikely figure to change that — unless he has hard evidence to substantiate his charges.
Cohen is testifying shortly before he is due to start a three-year jail term. One of the offenses to which he pled guilty is lying to Congress.
Before he turned on Trump, Cohen was a famously aggressive defender of the president: He is reported to have said he would “take a bullet” for Trump, and he also engaged in threatening behavior toward reporters.
The president’s allies are engaged in a full-court press to demolish any vestige of credibility on Cohen’s part.
“The first thing that Democrats organize after they take over control of the House of Representatives is to bring forward a known liar and perjurer, who has been convicted of lying to the very committees that he is going to be testifying to,” said David Bossie, a close Trump ally who was the president’s deputy campaign manager in 2016.
Bossie also accused the opposition party of being “irresponsible” for organizing the hearings while Trump is in Hanoi.
“They hate the president more than they love the country, and they want to do anything they can to hurt him — anything to have a show with Michael Cohen as the starring act.”
Trump himself has in the past seemed to insinuate that Cohen’s father-in-law has some undiscovered skeletons in his closet. The president has provided no evidence to back up that suggestion.
Other supporters have gone even further.
On Tuesday afternoon, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), one of the president’s most fervent backers on Capitol Hill, set off his own firestorm with a tweet that accused Cohen of infidelity.
Including Cohen’s own Twitter handle in his statement, Gaetz wrote: “Do your wife & father-in-law know about your girlfriends? Maybe tonight would be a good time for that chat. I wonder if she’ll remain faithful when you’re in prison. She’s about to learn a lot…”
The tweet drew immediate condemnation from Democrats and other outside observers, with some suggesting that Gaetz was at risk of transgressing laws barring witness intimidation.
Laurence Tribe, a Harvard Law School professor, tweeted that Gaetz was “engaged in criminal witness tampering in plain sight” and “deserves to be indicted.”
A Vox reporter tweeted what he said was a text exchange with Gaetz in which the congressman denied witness tampering, saying instead: “I’m witness testing. We still are allowed to test the veracity and character of witnesses, I think.”
Lanny Davis, an attorney for Cohen, shot back in a statement emailed to reporters. “We will not respond to Mr. Gaetz’s despicable lies and personal smears, except to say we trust that his colleagues in the House, both Republicans and Democrats, will repudiate his words and his conduct,” Davis wrote.
The Gaetz mini-drama added yet another twist to the surreal atmosphere that seems sure to envelop Cohen’s testimony.
Democrats — perhaps conscious of the potential for expectations to get out of control — have been fairly muted in their predictions for what might occur.
Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) told NPR’s “All Things Considered” on Monday that Trump had “almost on a daily basis … talked about how he has not committed any crimes and has basically called Michael Cohen a liar. So I think it’s only fair to Michael Cohen and to the president that representatives of the people — that is, Republicans and Democrats in the Congress — have an opportunity to ask questions.”
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.) put things more forcefully.
“The American people deserve to know whether Donald Trump has been functioning as the president of the United States of America or as the equivalent of an organized crime boss. Michael Cohen can shed some light on that very important question,” he told reporters on Tuesday.
Cohen testified behind closed doors to the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday. Afterward, he said he was looking forward to going public the next day.
“I’m going to let the American people decide exactly who’s telling the truth,” he told reporters.
An enormous amount will rest on whether Cohen can back up any allegations he makes — the single greatest unknown about his testimony.
People broadly supportive of the president believe that, absent such evidence, his appearance will have very limited effect.
“Michael Cohen is going to have about zero impact unless he can produce serious documentary evidence that proves a crime on the part of the president,” said Mark Corallo, a communications strategist who served briefly as the spokesman for the president’s outside legal team in 2017.
Corallo also argued that Trump would be best staying out of the controversy, rather than risk fueling the fire with angry tweets.
Even Trump’s defenders acknowledge that his public attacks on some foes, such as the authors of negative books, have only boosted the profile of the critics.
Corallo said that, if he were in Trump’s shoes, “I would just have my team respond with whatever responses were necessary and otherwise go about my business.”
All that kind of advice, however, is predicated on the idea that Cohen will produce little by way of substantiating evidence.
If that assumption is wrong, all bets are off.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.
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