WASHINGTON – Michael Cohen’s dramatic congressional testimony against President Donald Trump on Wednesday came loaded with lurid details, signed checks and partisan sniping – offering a level of spectacle that was unusual, even for Washington.
But both Democrats and Republicans signaled that Cohen’s remarks before the House Oversight Committee – his first extensive public remarks about his role as Trump’s personal attorney – was only a first act in a larger drama to be staged on Capitol Hill.
As Democrats sought to tease new details out of Cohen, a pugnacious former attorney, and Republicans tried to undermine his credibility, both sides were staking out talking points to be replayed in coming weeks as lawmakers look ahead to the next plot twist: the conclusion of special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into the 2016 election.
“Mr. Cohen’s testimony is the beginning of the process, not the end,” House Oversight Committee chairman Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., said during a hearing that was carried live on cable news for hours.
With the 2020 presidential election already underway, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are well aware of another possibility looming in the background: Democrats now in control of the House may decide to impeach Trump. Republicans accused Democrats of having that goal in mind by calling Cohen to testify.
Republicans repeatedly raised the specter of Tom Steyer, the billionaire Democratic donor and an outspoken supporter of impeaching Trump. Rep. Jim Jordan, the top Republican on the committee, and others questioned who was paying for Cohen’s attorney, implying it might be Steyer or other Democratic opponents of Trump.
“You’re their patsy today,” Jordan said. “They’ve got to find somebody somewhere to say something so they can try to remove the president from office because Tom Steyer told him to.”
Cohen said his attorneys were not receiving money.
Cohen often seemed more like an amused spectator than the star witness as the drama unfolded. But he also, at times, scolded and warned Republicans – including for signs they posted such as one reading: ““LIAR LIAR PANTS ON FIRE.”
“This is really unbecoming of Congress,” Cohen said, before taking the blame as a way to point the finger back at his inquisitors.
“I’m responsible for your silliness because I did the same thing that you’re doing now,” Cohen said. “I protected Mr. Trump for 10 years.”
Elijah Cummings warns Trump
Cummings vowed to use the committee as a check on the Trump administration, a level of oversight he has long complained was missing when Republicans ruled. The son of former sharecroppers who migrated from South Carolina to Maryland, the 68-year-old underwent heart surgery in 2017, a brush with death he said gives him renewed focus.
“The days of this committee protecting the president at all costs are over,” Cummings said at the start of the hearing. “They’re over.”
Jim Jordan blasts Democrats
Jordan, a co-founder of the upstart conservative House Freedom Caucus, came out swinging in defense of Trump.
“Your chairmanship will always be identified by this hearing,” steamed Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, the committee’s top Republican. “You have stacked the deck against the truth.”
The theatrics began before Cohen started speaking, when Rep. Mark Meadows, the chairman of the conservative Freedom Caucus, tried to delay the hearing. Meadows, a North Carolina Republican, said Cohen’s testimony arrived less than 24 hours before the hearing began, which he said violated the committee’s rules. Cummings dismissed that argument, countering that Republicans just didn’t want Cohen to testify at all.
With Democrats in control of the committee, a series of procedural votes allowed the hearing to go on as planned.
Three of the most outspoken freshmen Democrats class will get to grill Cohen later Wednesday. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y,, has a knack for making news no matter the situation. Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib made headlines the night she was sworn in, calling for Trump’s impeachment and referring to him with an expletive. Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley, who represents one of the nation’s most liberal districts, is another unapologetically progressive freshman.
“We have a constitutional obligation to conduct robust, effective & efficient oversight over this Administration,” Pressley tweeted soon after the hearing began.
The decision to appoint the trio to the oversight committee was widely viewed as adding an explosive counterpoint to firebrand conservatives on the panel, including Jordan and other leaders of the Freedom Caucus.