The public testimony of Lawrence native Michael Cohen before the House Oversight and Reform Committee on Feb. 27, the second of three days on which Cohen answered questions on Capitol Hill, was viewed through a diverse set of prisms.
Democrats appeared ready to use the testimony as a battering ram to attack President Trump and damage his re-election campaign. Republicans saw Cohen’s appearance as way to reinforce his status as a convicted liar who is not to be believed, in order to defend the president.
Some of the people who watched the proceedings on two high-definition televisions in what was called the overflow room — Room 2247, one floor above the hearing room, 2154, in the Rayburn House Office Building — said they thought it was exciting, wonderful and possibly a referendum on democracy in America.
“It’s nice to see white folks going to jail instead of just black folks,” Thelmiah Lee, 67, a retired math teacher and lifelong Washington, D.C., resident, said of the hearing. “I remember Watergate, when the guy found the tape on the door and they had the ‘plumbers’ bring down a president. This is all the president’s men, again. I think it’s glorious.”
Lee said he also attended both trials of former Trump Campaign Manager Paul Manafort and a hearing for Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser. Manafort was found guilty of tax and bank fraud, then pleaded guilty to conspiracy, and Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to FBI agents.
“It’s electric, and it’s actually very thrilling to be here physically,” said Amy Dahm, another Washington resident who is in her 40s and volunteers as a health advocate. “The legislative branch is checking the power of the executive branch,” she added. “Whether you have an allegiance to Trump or not, this is a referendum on the country.”
Disbarment and testimony
Cohen, 52, was convicted last year of breaking campaign finance laws, tax evasion and lying to Congress, among other charges. He was also ordered to pay $1.39 million in restitution, forfeit $500,000 and pay a $50,000 fine. Sentenced to three years in prison, he was to report to a penitentiary on March 6, but that was postponed to May 6, because he is scheduled to undergo shoulder surgery.
The guilty pleas to the federal felony charges resulted in his disbarment as a lawyer in New York state.
After meeting privately with the Senate Committee on Intelligence on Feb. 26, Cohen testified publicly the following day, and then appeared in a closed-door session of the House Select Committee on Intelligence on Feb. 28. He was expected to testify before the House Intelligence Committee again on Wednesday, after the Herald went to press.
In his public testimony, he called his former boss a racist and a cheat. “Since taking office, he has been the worst version of himself,” Cohen said. Low whistles could be heard in the overflow room when he recalled Trump’s statements about black people.
Cohen testified that Trump inflated or deflated the value of his business assets when it suited his purposes — deflating them in order to pay less in taxes, and inflating them in an attempt to obtain a loan to buy the Buffalo Bills.
After explaining “catch and kill,” the practice of purchasing the rights to a story with the intent of preventing it from being published, Cohen was asked by Rep. James Comer, a Kentucky Republican, what he was after doing so much unseemly work for Trump. “I am a fool,” Cohen replied. Stephanie Clifford, the adult film star known as Stormy Daniels, was paid $130,000 for the story of her alleged affair with Trump, which was then reportedly “killed” — kept from appearing in the tabloids.
After watching two Republican committee members, Reps. Jim Jordan and Mark Meadows, repeatedly brand Cohen as a liar, another overflow room observer, San Francisco resident Roslyn Kashkolli, who was in Washington visiting family, said, “I think we’re witnessing obstruction of a witness by Republicans.”
Cohen took much of the blame for what he called the “silliness” that currently pervades Congress, called the president an “autocrat” and blamed him for the “destruction of our civility.”
He noted that his life took a turn when he began working for Trump in 2007. Cohen called himself “a blessed husband of 24 years” to his wife, Laura, mentioned his children, Samantha and Jake, and noted that his father, Maurice, is a Holocaust survivor.
“It is painful to admit that I was motivated by ambition at times,” he said. “It is more painful to admit that many times I ignored my conscience and acted loyal to a man when I should not have. If you have more people that follow Mr. Trump, they will end where I am.”
“You want to change your life,” Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings, a Democrat from Maryland, said to Cohen. “We as a nation, if we did not give people an opportunity to change their lives, a whole lot of people would not do very well.” A few minutes later, Cummings added, “We’re better than this.”