From a strictly legal standpoint, we don’t know much more today than we did before Donald Trump’s disgraced, disbarred former attorney and bagman Michael Cohen began testifying before the House Oversight Committee Wednesday morning. An arrangement between Cohen and special counsel Robert Mueller precluded the witness from holding forth on what he might know about collusion between the 2016 Trump campaign and Russian agents. That agreement may not have even been necessary. “Questions have been raised about whether I know or have direct evidence that Mr. Trump or his campaign colluded with Russia,” said Cohen during his opening statement. “I do not.”
That opening statement was freighted with enough salacious material to keep the corporate news media buzzing throughout the day, though little of it could be described as groundbreaking new information. According to Cohen, Trump was informed by Roger Stone in advance of the now-infamous WikiLeaks document dump. Cohen ticked off a list of deeply racist comments made by Trump over the years. He alleged Trump was fully aware of ongoing negotiations for a Trump Tower in Moscow during the 2016 campaign and lied about it because he never expected to win the election. He recalled a conversation in which Trump noted that his son, Donald Trump Jr., “had the worst judgement of anyone in the world.”
Donald Trump is a chisler, a racist, a liar and the father of useless children. Stop the presses. Cohen knows more about Trump’s dirty dealings than he revealed at the hearing on Wednesday — he said as much several times when asked directly — but refused to elaborate, pointing to the ongoing investigations by Mueller along with state and federal agencies in New York as his reason for remaining silent on those topics. What we heard about Trump on Wednesday was, by and large, already public information many times over.
We didn’t learn much of anything new about Michael Cohen, either. Seated before the very Congress he had previously lied to under oath, Cohen was as contrite as could be even as he was relentlessly lambasted by committee Republicans. No one will ever call Cohen a good witness. His career, before and including his time with Trump, is scarred by serial associations with cretins of equally low character.
“Cohen went to one of the worst law schools in America,” reports Adam Davidson for The New Yorker, “and then spent years working alongside a string of lawyers and others who would go on to be convicted of crimes. His first legal job was with a lawyer who later pleaded guilty to bribing insurance adjusters. Later, Cohen worked with a doctor convicted of insurance fraud. Cohen also worked closely with taxicab moguls, including his father-in-law, who would be convicted of crimes.”
Taken at face value, little of what Cohen testified to on Wednesday will do much of anything to impact the standing of Trump among either his supplicants or his GOP hostages in Congress. Cohen is too easily dismissed as someone with a felony track record who has already lied many times under oath, and is about to spend three years in prison for his crimes.
Fish in a barrel are harder targets than Cohen was yesterday, and the committee’s Republicans seldom missed their vituperative mark during his testimony. At one point, Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Kentucky) raked Cohen over the coals regarding his performance as Trump’s lawyer, underscoring a longstanding defense Trump and his defenders use when accused of wrongdoing: I was following the advice of my attorney. After ticking off several crimes Cohen confessed to committing on behalf of Trump without, he claimed, considering the legality of his actions, Massie asked, “Is that being a good lawyer? To not even consider whether it’s legal or not?” Most of Cohen’s exchanges with the committee’s Republicans followed in a similar vein.
For all that, the Wednesday hearing was not thoroughly without merit. For one thing, we learned that the Republicans are not taking their new minority status with good cheer. Rep. Mark Meadows (R-North Carolina), chair of the infamous House Freedom Caucus and his cohort, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), came close to flipping tables at the outset of the hearings in an attempt to disrupt the proceedings. Snarls of “It’s my time, not yours!” were often directed at Cohen by his Republican inquisitors when he tried to answer their rapid-fire questions.
Questioning from Republican committee members often pivoted to attacks on committee chairman Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Maryland) for allowing Cohen to testify in the first place. This was farce lathered in hypocrisy, for it was those same Republicans who spent the last two years ignoring alleged Trump campaign or Trump administration crimes. Representative Cummings finally got one in the dock, and his GOP colleagues were shocked, shocked by Cohen’s record of duplicity. Witnesses who were members of a crime syndicate are not, generally speaking, going to be choir boys. So it was on Wednesday.
We also learned something important about Trump himself, something we already knew in theory but needed to see in the flesh. Yes, Cohen is a lifelong scumbag with a long train of lies and double-dealing dragging behind him. Many of the questions from committee Republicans boiled down to, “If Trump was so bad, why did you work for him for 10 years?” Pivot the question — “If you are so bad, Mr. Cohen, why did Trump keep you around for 10 years?” — and a real measure of clarity is achieved.
Trump kept a serial liar and duplicitous fixer like Cohen around for 10 years because they are the same person. Trump only truly values those people who are a reflection of himself and his own grotesque morality. Even sullied characters like Reince Priebus and John Kelly don’t last long in his orbit because they are too clean by comparison. That cleanliness, dingy though it may be, reflects poorly on the moral and ethical filth that is Trump’s personal baggage.
Like the strange fish who swim in the deepest depths of the ocean and explode when they are hauled into the light, Trump is only comfortable down in the darkness with his own kind. Cohen was one of his closest confidants, his personal attorney and problem-solver. He was hauled into the light, and exploded, and went before Congress on Wednesday to tell us about it. It was exactly what we needed to see.
This article has been updated.