After a long and ugly day, Cummings offered something of a benediction. It was a gift of forgiveness—not just to Cohen, but to the nation as a whole. It was a vision of a possible future.
Alex Wagner: Michael Cohen’s made-for-TV mea culpa
Cohen’s testimony was in many ways a high-wire act. His goal was to drive home the ugliness of the man elevated to the role of president of the United States—what former FBI Director James Comey, also testifying before Congress, described tersely more than a year ago as “the nature of the person.”
As the committee’s Republicans repeatedly pointed out, Cohen was a man who had pleaded guilty to lying to Congress trying to appear as a credible witness before that same body. He was also presenting himself as reformed and remorseful while detailing his own ugly conduct alongside that of the president. In a surreal exchange with Representative Jackie Speier, he estimated that he had “probably” issued about 500 threats on Trump’s request over the decade they worked together. This comes out to about four threats a month—including Cohen’s 2015 warning to the reporter Tim Mak to “tread very fucking lightly.”
But however much Cohen tried to present himself as redeemed, he also came in front of the committee ready for a fight. Time and again, he hit back when Republican members of the committee tried to challenge his credibility. “Shame on you,” he told Jim Jordan, after the committee’s ranking member suggested that Cohen’s “remorse is nonexistent.” When Representative Paul Gosar called Cohen “a pathological liar,” Cohen leaned forward and cut him off, asking, “Are you referring to me or the president?” He seemed cheered by Gosar’s irritation.
If at some moments Cohen wanted to be seen as a reformed man, he came across at others as his old pugilistic self. Instead of weakening the power of his testimony, as the Republicans might have hoped, that strengthened it. He was effective in part because of his scrappy eagerness to talk over hostile questioners and point out their hypocrisies in defending the president. Sitting in front of the microphone, Cohen tried to cast himself in that very American role: the underdog.
David Frum: Uncontradicted
“I did the same thing that you’re doing now for 10 years,” he told the committee Republicans at one point. “I protected Mr. Trump for 10 years. Look what’s happened to me.” His own halting steps toward redemption—his self-reflection on his less-than-savory side—enabled him to zero in on the weak points of the president’s allies. He knew those men intimately because, for 10 years, he was them.
It was in this context that Cummings made his closing speech. He spoke to Cohen as if a father to a son—a bestower of mercy. “I don’t know why this is happening for you,” he said. “But it’s my hope that a small part of it is for our country to be better.” He went on:
Let me tell you the picture that really, really pained me. You were leaving the prison, you were leaving the courthouse, and, I guess it’s your daughter, had braces or something on. Man, that thing—man, that thing hurt me. As a father of two daughters, it hurt me. And I can imagine how it must feel for you. But I’m just saying to you—I want to first of all thank you. I know that this has been hard. I know that you’ve faced a lot. I know that you are worried about your family. But this is a part of your destiny. And hopefully this portion of your destiny will lead to a better, a better, a better Michael Cohen, a better Donald Trump, a better United States of America, and a better world. And I mean that from the depths of my heart.
As he spoke, Cohen began to cry.