Michael Cohen and the paradoxical sainthood of the damned

In an extraordinary day of testimony, Trump’s former fixer and attorney shrugged off Republican attempts to smear him – even as he prepares to begin his prison sentence.

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Even by the standards of the Trump era, Michael Cohen’s testimony before the House Oversight Committee on Wednesday was explosive. His demeanour was soft-spoken and almost performatively contrite, but right from the start it was clear that he would pull no punches. “I am ashamed of my weakness and misplaced loyalty – of the things I did for Mr Trump in an effort to protect and promote him,” he said. “I am ashamed because I know what Mr Trump is.”

“He is a racist. He is a conman. He is a cheat,” he said.

The words were powerful because they came from the man who was Trump’s right-hand man for more than a decade. Cohen knows where the bodies are buried, and he brought evidence, submitting documents underpinning his claims. These included a copy of a cheque, from Trump’s personal bank account and bearing his signature, for part of the money used to reimburse Cohen after the election for the hush-money he paid to porn star Stormy Daniels during the campaign.

That directly implicates the president in a federal crime, committed from the Oval Office – and it wasn’t even the most eye-popping revelation Cohen had in store. He said that Trump had directed him to lie to Congress – not in so many words, Cohen said, but “in his way, he was telling me to lie” – about the timeline for the Trump Tower project in Moscow, the crime for which Cohen is set to begin a three-year sentence in federal prison in May. He even said Trump’s personal lawyers had reviewed and edited his false testimony; in a statement, Trump attorney Jay Sekulow denied editing Cohen’s original testimony – but, tellingly, did not appear to deny having reviewed it.

It made for gripping television, and there was more to come. Cohen said that he kept Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump informed about the Trump Tower Moscow project “in the normal course of business.” Asked if it was possible the pair had been “compromised … by a foreign power” in the run-up to the 2016 elections, Cohen answered simply “yes.” Asked if he believed Trump had the potential to collude with a foreign power to win the presidency at all costs, Cohen answered “yes.” Asked about Trump’s possible collusion with Russia, Cohen said “I wouldn’t use the word ‘colluding’ – but was there something odd about his back-and-forth conversation with Putin? Yes.” Asked if he had ever seen Trump threaten anybody with physical harm, Cohen said “no – he would use others.”

Tantalisingly, Cohen also said that he was still “in constant contact” with the US attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York, in relation to ongoing investigations which he declined to detail. It’s not known what those are – they might be from during his presidency or before it, for fraud, for instance – but as Chris Christie, with whom Trump is close and who briefly headed his transition team, said on TV afterwards: “that would send a chill up my spine at the White House.” All told, Cohen implicated Trump directly in more than a dozen felonies.

Cohen is, there is no doubt about it, an unsavoury individual. But his contrition – his fuck it, I’m going to jail, might as well tell the truth attitude – lent him a strange aura of untouchability, the paradoxical sainthood of the damned. That’s why, when the Republicans on the committee tried to discredit him, it never seemed to stick. As one Democrat on the committee, Stephen Lynch, put it, “I don’t think my colleagues on the other side of the aisle are afraid that you’re going to lie: they’re afraid that you’re going to tell the truth.” Nonetheless, led by Jim Jordan and Mark Meadows, leaders of the far-right Freedom Caucus, the committee’s Republicans spent their allocated five minutes striking again and again at Cohen’s character, trying to undermine his testimony.

They called him a pathological liar, self-serving, publicity-hungry, a bully, even “a bad person”. They brought props – including a large poster, which they erected behind their chairs, which read “Liar, liar, pants on fire.” Impossibly, the superlative irony of these Republicans working their faux-outrage to a froth over a man for exhibiting the traits that most perfectly define Trump, appeared to be lost on them. At least, they pretended not to recognise it. But it was not lost on anyone else. Cohen calmly let them punch themselves out, and responded with something approaching pity.

“Putting up silly things like [the “liar liar” poster], things really unbecoming of Congress - it’s that sort of behaviour I’m responsible for, because I did the same thing for ten years,” Cohen said at one point. “I find it interesting that among you and your colleagues not a single question has been asked about President Trump – I thought that’s why I was here today” he said innocently a few moments later, after another Republican demanded, ridiculously, that he swear under oath that he would never write a book.

In Cohen’s contrition – one journalist who had been on the receiving end of Cohen’s Trump-directed threats observed that “all the hubris” had “drained out of him” – it was possible, maybe, to catch a fleeting glimpse of democratic norms finally reasserting themselves. Esquire hailed the hearing as “the start of a reconstruction of the American republic.” But this is the optimistic view: it was countered in by far the most chilling moment of the hearing, at the end, in Cohen’s closing remarks. “I acknowledge I have made mistakes, but silence and complicity will not be among them,” Cohen said. “My loyalty to Trump has cost me everything … but I will not sit back and say nothing.”

Then he continued: “I fear that if Trump loses the 2020 election, that there will never be a peaceful transition of power.”

There will never be a peaceful transition of power. Even in an era when democratic norms seem to have become a thing of the past, the impact of that statement – from his fixer, no less, a man who knows Trump perhaps better than anyone else on Earth – was still utterly stunning.

It seemed to trouble Rep. Elijah Cummings, the chair of the committee, deeply. “I’ve sat here and listened to all of this, and it’s very painful,” Cummings said a moment later, in his closing remarks. He said that seeing a picture of Cohen outside his sentencing with his young daughter had hurt him deeply. “I don’t know where we go from here,” he said, “but my hope is that a small part of it is for our country to be better.” Cohen, who had been calm throughout the proceedings, suddenly seemed on the verge of tears.

“We are better than this. We are,” Cummings continued, his voice building to a preacher’s crescendo. “Hopefully, this portion of your destiny will lead to a better–” he waved an arm “–a better Michael Cohen, a better Donald Trump, a better America, and a better world. I mean this from the bottom of my heart. When we are dancing with the angels, the question will be asked: in 2019, what did we do to keep our democracy intact? Did we stand on the sidelines and say nothing?”

He was shouting now, pleading with America. “We have got to get back to normal,” he said. Then, abruptly, he banged the gavel and the hearing was adjourned.

Nicky Woolf is the editor of New Statesman America. He has formerly written for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.