WASHINGTON — A poster propped behind Republicans grilling Michael Cohen set out their strategy in five words: “Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire!”
They sounded angry, whipped off their glasses and threw paper down on their desks as they questioned President Donald Trump’s former “fixer” about his misdeeds — all while conspicuously avoiding Cohen’s contention that he did Trump’s bidding, possibly in violation of the law, for decades.
Rather than rush to the president’s defence on his payments to a porn star or what Cohen described as pressure to violate the law, Republicans hammered on Cohen for being a convicted liar, suggesting he’s especially lying now about Trump. The president piped up from Vietnam during the hearing with a similar approach.
“He is lying in order to reduce his prison time,” Trump tweeted.
But by then, Republicans were well into their effort to discredit the man Trump has called a “rat.”
“You’ve claimed that you’ve lied but you’re not a liar,” said Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga. “Just to set the record straight, if you lied, you are a liar by definition.”
While Republicans focused on lies, Democrats talked about truth — about Trump, about the payments, about the inner workings and finances of the Trump Organization. They took pains to condemn Cohen for his false statement to Congress, acknowledging the considerable baggage he brought as a witness. Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings, D-Md., opened the hearing with a no-nonsense lecture to Cohen and later said he would “nail him to the cross” for lying to the committee.
But Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., suggested truthfulness wasn’t the issue.
“I don’t think colleagues on the other side of the aisle are afraid that you’re going to lie,” Lynch told Cohen. “I think they’re afraid you’re going to tell the truth.”
The true-or-false gamesmanship pointed to a more consequential political struggle, one that is just now getting under way. Democrats wanted to convince the public that Cohen’s testimony was a legitimate and necessary use of their new oversight power, with more to come. Repeatedly, they used their questioning of Cohen to set up new lines of inquiry, asking him for the names of other people in Trump’s orbit that they should interview.
All the while, Republicans portrayed the hearing as a sham, motivated by animus against the president, with Cohen’s mere presence in the hearing room serving as proof.
Cohen was already heading to prison next month after pleading guilty to violating campaign finance laws and yes, lying to Congress. In his opening statement, Cohen again admitted having lied to protect Trump and himself.
Calling Cohen a liar over and over during Wednesday’s proceedings didn’t stand up to the documentation he brought with him — including what he said was a copy of a $35,000 check signed by Trump, then president. Cohen said it was one of 11 checks Trump wrote to repay Cohen for the cash paid to porn actress Stormy Daniels to keep her quiet about an alleged affair. He told the panel that Trump pressured him to lie to first lady Melania Trump about the matter. Cohen said Trump pressured him to suppress the truth about his college grades and the real reason he did not serve in Vietnam — a deferment later attributed to bone spurs.
Cohen also suggested there could be more revelations to come. He suggested prosecutors in New York are investigating conversations that Trump or his advisers had with Cohen after Cohen’s hotel-room office was raided by the FBI.
He said Trump did not ask him directly to lie to Congress, specifying that’s not the president’s style. But he said there was pressure to lie in the form of suggestive words from Trump, including in one instance, in the Oval Office.
At one point, he said he appreciates that Republicans are attacking “me every single time about taxes, (saying) I have no credibility.”
“It’s for exactly that reason that I spent the last week searching boxes in order to find the information that I did so that you don’t have to take my word for it. I don’t want you to,” he said. “I want you to look at the documents.”
Republicans held firm to their goal of showing Cohen can’t be trusted.
“Where are those boxes? Are they in your garage or…?” asked Rep. Clay Higgins, R-La., who asked for more detail on whether they should have been turned over to law enforcement.
They were confiscated by the FBI, and then returned, Cohen said.
Other Republicans went off on Cohen, including Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., a top Trump ally who pointed his glasses at Cohen and at times shouted. He took aim at Cohen’s testimony that Trump was a racist who said black people would not vote for him because they’re “too stupid.”
About 90 minutes into the hearing, a woman named Lynne Patton, a longtime Trump family aide who works at the Department of Housing and Urban Development stood behind Meadows.
Meadows said Patton, who is African American, would not work for someone who is racist.
“Neither should I as the son of a Holocaust survivor,” Cohen replied.
Later, freshman Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan said that using Patton as a “prop” was racist. Meadows objected. Tlaib said she “was not referring to you at all as a racist” and apologized “if that’s what it sounded like.”
Some Republicans got to the point.
“You’re either incompetent or you are a liar,” said Rep. Bob Gibbs, R-Ohio.
Added Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz.: “You are a pathological liar. You don’t note truth from falsehood.”
“I’m sorry,” said Cohen. “Are you referring to me or the president?”
Cohen grew visibly emotional at the end of the hearing as Cummings thanked him for coming. Face reddening, Cohen appeared to be holding back tears and took a sip of water as he composed himself. It was one of several moments during the hearing where Cohen’s old bravado as Trump’s fixer was seemingly gone.
“Good luck on your road to redemption,” said Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Calif., at one point.
“Thank you,” Cohen replied. “It’s going to be a long way.”
Associated Press Writer Mary Clare Jalonick contributed to this report.
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Laurie Kellman, The Associated Press