President Donald Trump is apparently not thrilled that his former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen, who is testifying before Congress Wednesday, is upstaging Trump’s big diplomatic extravaganza with North Korean leader Kim Jong in Vietnam.
Cohen, who pleaded guilty to financial crimes, bank fraud, campaign finance violations, and lying to Congress and is scheduled to begin serving a three-year prison sentence in May, is appearing before the House Oversight Committee at 10 am Eastern — right after Trump wrapped up his first day of pageantry with Kim at their summit in Hanoi, Vietnam.
And Cohen’s testimony is expected to be explosive: His prepared opening statement, which came out late Tuesday night, is filled with eye-popping claims about Trump’s misdeeds — including a claim that Trump may have committed crimes while in office.
Which means that, much to Trump’s consternation, all eyes will be on Cohen Wednesday — and not on the president’s big, important diplomatic event with the North Korean dictator.
And now the White House is trying desperately to redirect attention back to the summit.
Right before the first private meeting between Trump and Kim was about to begin on Wednesday, a reporter shouted questions at Trump, asking if he had any comments about Cohen’s planned testimony to Congress.
After slightly shaking his head, Trump simply replied, “Thank you.”
But it appears Trump, or at least his staff, was frustrated by the inquiry — and shortly after, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders announced that four American print reporters would be barred from attending the next press availability: the start of a dinner between Trump, Kim, and their top aides.
After protests from the media, they agreed to allow in one print reporter — the Wall Street Journal’s Vivian Salama — to report on the event, along with a few photojournalists. It’s unclear how many North Korean reporters were allowed around in.
Journalists, including those who asked questions of Trump and Kim and who made the long trip to Hanoi, were understandably angry.
Wire writers from @Reuters @AP @business were excluded from going with the press pool to see the dinner between @realDonaldTrump and #KimJongUn. AP colleague @JonLemire and I were among those. We both asked questions during the first “pool spray” when the two leaders shook hands.— Jeff Mason (@jeffmason1) February 27, 2019
Sanders offered a statement after the episode:
Due to the sensitive nature of the meetings we have limited the pool for the dinner to a smaller group, but ensured that representation of photographers, tv [sic], radio and print Poolers are all in the room. We are continuing to negotiate aspects of this historic summit and will always work to make sure the U.S. media has as much access as possible.
There are two main takeaways here.
First, it’s standard practice to give US media access to the president when he meets with a foreign leader abroad and to allow them to ask questions of both leaders. That’s especially true when the president is meeting with repressive dictators, like Kim, in part as a way to show democracy and freedom of the press in action.
Former President Barack Obama, for example, ensured that he and Chinese President Xi Jinping both spoke during a press conference, forcing Xi out of his comfort zone.
By restricting access to the press in front of the leader of a country that not only lacks any kind of free press whatsoever but who also regularly assassinates and imprisons detractors, President Trump was betraying that moral leadership.
Second, the historic Trump-Kim summit in Vietnam is at serious risk of being overshadowed by Cohen’s testimony back home. If Trump makes news with his statements about it (other than his early-morning tweet), it could completely derail the very serious, very intense, and very delicate negotiations over dismantling North Korea’s nuclear program.
That shouldn’t stop the press from asking about Cohen’s testimony and demanding answers, of course. After all, that’s the whole point of having a free press: to hold leaders accountable.