Michael Cohen Depicts a Life More Like ‘The Sopranos’ Than ‘The Apprentice’
For 14 seasons, on NBC’s “The Apprentice,” Donald J. Trump presented a gilded image of the Trump Organization, which the reality show depicted as a hard-charging, happy, successful business.
On Wednesday, before the House oversight committee and a nationwide TV audience, Michael D. Cohen, Mr. Trump’s longtime lawyer and fixer, told America that it had been watching a different story all along: less “The Apprentice” and more “The Sopranos.”
Mr. Cohen described a business, and a campaign, in which lies and threats were routine and embarrassing stories were bought and buried, all in service of a boss who dropped Tony Sopranoesque hints about how best to make his problems go away.
Mr. Cohen, who had already pleaded guilty to lying to Congress, brought documentation to back up some of his charges. Besides addressing his credibility issues, it was a Trumpian visual gesture, providing the TV networks dramatic images to splash onscreen alongside his testimony — checks, letters, financial statements, a portrait of himself that Mr. Trump bought using funds from his charitable foundation, according to Mr. Cohen.
But beyond any specific accusation, Mr. Cohen was making a more sweeping argument: that his onetime boss was not a good person. He was a “racist,” a “con man” and a “cheat.” Mr. Cohen stuck with Mr. Trump, he said, because he had something to gain from it. (He described the reality star’s presence as “intoxicating.”)
And in some dramatic exchanges, he told his hostile Republican questioners that they were now carrying the same water. “I protected Mr. Trump for 10 years,” he said. “The more people that follow Mr. Trump as I did, blindly, are going to suffer the same consequences as I did.”
While describing the president like a Mario Puzo creation, Mr. Cohen wrote himself as someone out of Charles Dickens: rattling his chains as a caution like Jacob Marley in “A Christmas Carol” and maybe even earning, in his words, “redemption,” like Sydney Carton sacrificing himself at the end of “A Tale of Two Cities.”
That last bit of wish-casting was a stretch. It was hard to hear Mr. Cohen bemoaning “the daily destruction of civility” without remembering his expletive-filled tirade threatening to do something “disgusting” to a reporter working on a story about an allegation of spousal rape Ivana Trump made against Mr. Trump in divorce papers. If civility’s been killed, a few of Mr. Cohen’s prints are on the murder weapon.
But Mr. Cohen’s history — and his willingness to admit to it — made a tricky proposition for the Republicans. By calling him a liar, a criminal and a sleaze, they underscored his narrative: that those were basically the job requirements for his position.
Indeed, though Mr. Cohen was only brought to testify because Democrats had taken control of the house, some of the most striking exchanges were with the Republicans. It was Mr. Trump’s old attack dog against his new pack.
And oh, was the barking loud. Mostly ignoring Mr. Cohen’s specific charges, the Republicans instead painted him as disgruntled, untrustworthy and out for himself (the phrase “book deal” was uttered more times than in a literary agent’s office), while signaling to the voters at home that they’d be zealous in defending the president.
Representative Jim Jordan, quarterbacking the Republican case in shirt sleeves, taunted Mr. Cohen for being jealous of not being “brought to the dance” with a White House job. Representative Mark Green channeled Mr. Trump by calling Mr. Cohen a “fake witness.” Representative Paul Gosar scolded, “Liar, liar, pants on fire,” bringing a poster in case his oratory was too subtle.
Mr. Cohen, who began his remarks wrung-out and drained, showed the combativeness that had kept him on the Trump payroll. When Representative Mark Meadows rebutted Mr. Cohen’s charges of racism by having a lone African-American Trump official, Lynne Patton, stand silently behind him, Mr. Cohen said to ask her how many black executives the Trump Organization employed.
Toward the end of the hearing, that scene came up again, when Representative Rashida Tlaib denounced the spectacle as “racist.” Mr. Meadows, who is white, took offense, citing his friendship with the committee chairman, Representative Elijah Cummings, who is black, and who stepped in to calm the situation. It all seemed like a mini improv drama on the messy personal-racial dynamics of “Green Book” America.
Other times, Mr. Cohen copped to his flaws in a way that seemed to frustrate his questioners. “You call Mr. Trump a cheat in your testimony. What do you call yourself?” Representative James Comer asked him. “A fool,” Mr. Cohen said.
The Democrats gave Mr. Cohen friendlier questioning (and played to their own constituencies) but didn’t develop a united narrative line. Some asked about Mr. Cohen’s accusations and documents, others took fliers on questions about rumored sexual and violent Trump tapes.
Still others, like the omnipresent new Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, inquired about Mr. Trump’s assets and taxes, suggesting more hearings in our future.
It is easy, in this overwhelming news age, to get jaded. Did you hear, I’ll ask you, that the president was accused of illegal activity by his jail-bound former lawyer, who had just been threatened by a congressman on Twitter? Oh, you’ll say, so it’s Wednesday.
But even by today’s standards, this was stunning television — dramatic and draining and personal. Mr. Cummings closed the hearing plaintively: “We have got to get back to normal.” The fixer had come to Congress, but the day ended with the country feeling just as broken.
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