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Republicans can’t defend Trump against the substance of Cohen’s attacks

All they can do is try to paint Cohen as a liar.

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) questions Michael Cohen, former attorney for President Trump, as he testifies before the House Oversight Committee on February 27, 2019.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s testimony before the House Oversight Committee on Tuesday morning has been damning — both for President Donald Trump and his Republican allies in Congress.

Cohen has testified that Trump knew about illegal hush money paid to Stormy Daniels during the campaign, knew about Wikileaks’ dump of Hillary Clinton’s emails before they happened, and repeatedly said racist things in private. He has painted a picture of the president as a greedy, untrustworthy, cruel man who cares nothing for the country that he leads.

The Republicans on the committee, led by ranking Rep. Jim Jordan (OH), have spent limited time engaging Cohen on the specifics of these charges. Their responses have instead focused overwhelmingly on trying to discredit Cohen personally as a liar acting out of self-preservation — pointing out that he has pled guilty to lying to Congress before. One Republican even trotted out a poster of Cohen’s face with the caption “liar, liar, pants on fire.”

Michael Cohen testifies before the House Oversight Committee on February 27, 2019.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

But the logic underlying this charge is profoundly wrong. The fact that Cohen lied before, and even committed financial crimes, doesn’t mean that he is doing it now. Time and again, when Republicans pressed Cohen on why he might be lying this time, they could not come with a persuasive explanation — leading to House members flailing as Cohen shot down their arguments.

The best argument that Republicans could come up with concedes that Trump employed a guy to lie and commit crimes for him for years, yet still fails to successfully indict his current testimony. That this is the best Trump’s defenders in the House GOP caucus could up with shows just how brutal Cohen’s testimony is for the White House.

The strange Republican case against Cohen

The generic Republican argument against Cohen was, more or less, that he was a lying liar who lies. “How can we believe anything you say? The answer is we can’t,” Rep. Carol Miller (R-WV) said, not bothering to give Cohen a chance to reply.

That Cohen has lied in the past is established: he’s even going to prison for it. But Republicans needed to go further and try to establish a motive for Cohen to lie under oath, again, about President Trump. And they could not come up with a convincing explanation.

Jordan, for example, argued that Cohen was bitter over not getting a White House job and was lying to defame the president now out of sour grapes. But Cohen didn’t just deny this generically. He had a persuasive story, apparently backed by a memo, as to why he didn’t want to take a job in the Trump White House:

I was offered jobs. I can tell you a story of Mr. Trump reaming out Reince Priebus because I had not taken a job where Mr. Trump wanted me to work with Don McGahn at the White House General Counsel’s office...

What I said at the time, and I brought a lawyer in who produced a memo as to why I should not go in, because there would be no attorney-client privilege. In order to handle some of the matters that I talked about in my opening, it would be best suited for me not to go in, and that every president had a personal attorney.

Jordan had no direct evidence to contradict this. He had no texts from Cohen or past comments suggesting that Cohen was mad about not having a job. He was clearly just floating a theory and looking to see if it would stick. And it didn’t.

Another common argument from Republicans was that Cohen was planning to monetize his testimony somehow — that his appearance was a prelude to a tell-all book deal. “You’re set to go to jail for a couple years,” Rep. Michael Cloud, R-TX, told Cohen. “If you come out with a book deal, that’s not bad living.”

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) (left) and Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) talk during testimony from Michael Cohen on Capitol Hill, on February 27, 2019.
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The prospect of a book deal came up again and again, with Republicans repeatedly asking Cohen to deny that he would seek one and Cohen refusing to do so. Cohen did say he planned to pursue one in the future, but it’s hard to see how committing perjury — again! — would help him do so.

Republicans also attacked Cohen’s legal record: Another frequent charge was that he was a bad lawyer, an unethical lawyer, or both. Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-ND) zeroed in on Cohen taping clients of his while he was an attorney, and his willingness to turn over those tapes to the committee, as evidence that Cohen was not exactly the world’s most trustworthy attorney:

Within a matter of a second, one second, you took no absolutely no calculation of your role as those clients’ counselor, the role that plays in privacy and in the role that plays in the solemn vow you took and you just immediately said, if it helps me out in two day in front of TV, absolutely, Mr. Chairman, you can have that.

It’s a fair hit! After this hearing, I wouldn’t trust Cohen with my legal affairs. But the argument doesn’t help Republicans make the case that Cohen is lying about Trump’s ties to Russia, his racism, or his involvement in campaign finance violations. It was hard to see the relevance of Armstrong’s questioning — or, indeed, those of other Republicans.

Why the GOP case was so weak

In most cases, people don’t just lie because they like making up stories. They lie because they have specific reasons to lie: It makes them look good, helps them get a job or money, or otherwise advances their interests.

Cohen’s argument, consistent throughout the testimony, is that he lied for these reasons in the past. He lied to protect Trump, his employer, and lied to enhance his own personal fortune. His lying was strategic, aimed at accomplishing personal and professional aims.

Lying in this hearing, by contrast, doesn’t help Cohen at all. In fact, it could seriously hurt him. Cohen is under oath, and lying to Congress would constitute perjury. Cohen knows how much trouble this could land him in, since he’s already been convicted of perjury. Lying now would expose Cohen to more criminal charges without benefitting him in any obvious way. So why on earth would he do it?

Republicans failed to answer that question in any persuasive way. The result is that their arguments have stuck to painting Cohen as a sort of pathological liar who lies compulsively and can’t be trusted because he has committed crimes in the past.

The logic of this position implies that the testimony of a mafioso who turned state’s evidence couldn’t be trusted because he was, in the past, a mafioso — a principle that, as Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) pointed out, would discredit some of the biggest criminal trials in US history. It’s an absurd argument. But since Republicans don’t want to engage on the specifics of Cohen’s testimony, the damning charges against the president, they have instead chosen to simply try to indict him in this roundabout kind of way.

This isn’t just my opinion. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who initially ran Trump’s presidential transition team, said the same thing on ABC.

“The interesting thing is there hasn’t been one Republican who’s tried to defend the president on the substance,” Christie said. “I think that’s something that should be concerning to the White House.”

Indeed it should.