The Michael Cohen hearing before the House Oversight Committee was billed as an impending significant blow to the Trump presidency. We were told the coming revelations would be “detailed, sordid and chilling.” The disclosures were supposed to be “earth shattering.”
Instead, there was no moment of high drama, and nothing particularly revelatory. The testimony turned out to be overhyped and underwhelming.
This was the first of what promises to be a series of public political spectacles organized by House Democrats seeking to embarrass and potentially impeach President Trump ahead of the 2020 election. The optics were not good. The star witness, Cohen, who previously lied to Congress, was a disbarred, convicted perjurer and tax evader who is on his way to jail. The event was organized by Cohen’s allegedly pro-bono lawyer Lanny Davis, a longtime Clinton family operative, who sat behind him while Cohen spoke. And Cohen’s team consulted with committee Democrats in preparing his testimony. Thus, despite Chairman Elijah Cummings’ (D-MD) statement that the committee was “in search of the truth,” there was no whiff of objectivity in this process. It was a political hit job.
The most important headline from the hearing should be that Cohen, a “fixer” who claims to have been as close to the Trump operation as anyone could be for over a decade, has no proof of Trump campaign collusion with Russia. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) tried to badger Cohen into saying President Trump lied about his Russia dealings, but to Cohen’s credit she failed.
Cohen’s thin evidence
Nevertheless, Cohen chose to feed uncorroborated speculation on the issue, for example mentioning a July 2016 phone call he says he overheard in which Roger Stone supposedly told President Trump that Wikileaks was going to publish the hacked Hillary Clinton emails. But Cohen’s timeline is off because Wikileaks had already announced in June 2016 that it intended to publish the emails, so this bomb was a dud.
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There were also questions about the Trump hotel project in Moscow — a plan dating back to the 1980s that never came to fruition. Cohen poured cold water on the Buzzfeed story alleging that President Trump had instructed him to lie to Congress about the project, and said the idea of offering Vladimir Putin a penthouse in the tower was just a publicity stunt to drive up rental prices.
And it is still unclear how this never-completed long-term proposal could possibly connect to Russian interference in an election that — according to Cohen — Donald Trump viewed as simply an “informercial.” It would have been far easier just to build the hotel without seeking the White House. And despite Cohen’s impression that Trump shows deference to Putin, the president’s official record — including pulling out of the INF Treaty, taking a hard line against Russian ally Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela and arming Ukraine — would make him the worst colluder in history.
Cohen revealed a reimbursement check signed by Donald Trump on August 1, 2017, that Cohen claimed was evidence in “a criminal scheme to violate campaign finance laws” regarding payoffs to Stephanie Clifford, known as Stormy Daniels. This is tied to ongoing investigations by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York of alleged finance violations by the Trump campaign. President Trump denies that the payments violated the law, and that any potential issues arose later because of bad legal advice from people like Cohen.
Plus it is impossible to believe that someone with Trump’s lifetime of business dealings would knowingly pay someone by check to conduct criminal activity. He’s no Jussie Smollett.
This issue will be played out elsewhere, but the primary significance of the check is the date, since Democrats are eager to find any excuse to claim that President Trump has done things while in office that would allow them, in the words of Rep. Clay Higgins (R-LA), to “lay some sort of soft cornerstone for future impeachment proceedings.”
Trump just like other businessmen
Cohen’s assessment of Trump’s character, namely that he is a “racist, a conman and a cheat,” is what you might expect from someone pursuing a vendetta. But he offered no evidence to substantiate his charge of racism, and the documents he produced on other charges seemed trivial.
Cohen told us that President Trump wanted to appear wealthier than he was for publicity purposes while also trying legally to minimize his property taxes, which probably makes him like most wealthy businessmen. Cohen seemed to think it significant that President Trump took action to prevent the illegal release of his SAT scores and college transcripts — documents we have not seen from other recent presidents either. And Cohen asserted that President Trump has no interest in making America a better place, even as the president is in Vietnam trying to keep his promises to do that very thing.
Ultimately the hearing delivered none of the promised bombshells, but it did serve the Democratic political narrative as they prepare for the rapidly approaching post-Mueller, post-collusion world in which Democrats need to move on to other ways to attempt to overturn the 2016 election. In that respect Cohen did what he was expected to do.
Now he can go to prison.
James S. Robbins, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and author of “Erasing America: Losing Our Future by Destroying Our Past,” has taught at the National Defense University and the Marine Corps University and served as a special assistant in the office of the secretary of Defense in the George W. Bush administration. Follow him on Twitter: @James_Robbins