Michael Cohen’s Made-for-TV Mea Culpa

In Trump’s television presidency, a former confidant has weaponized the medium.

Michael Cohen
Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

It was a frenetic scene on Wednesday morning outside hearing room 2154 in the Rayburn building of the U.S. Capitol complex: Reporters, producers, cameramen, and members of the public clogged the hallways as the Capitol Police barked at everyone to Stay to the side! and Clear a pathway! as the congresspeople of the House Oversight Committee made their way into the room, invariably flanked with an assortment of aides—their faces all plastered with weary, inscrutable looks signaling that they meant business. Michael Cohen was finally making his debut on the Hill, ready to sit for nationally televised hearings, and this was going to change everything.

Perhaps it did. Ironically, Trump’s preferred medium, television, may be the one that ultimately damns him.

Scandals, in the age of Trump, have taken on a certain numbing quality: vote rigging in North Carolina, a climate-science denier placed in charge of a climate-science panel designed to refute the conclusions of actual climate scientists, official subpoenas of an inaugural committee. These things come and go, provoking various degrees of indignation and debate, but they do not sear themselves in the American imagination. Nor have they provided any truly teachable moments, save for the fact that their frequent, passing nature tells us something broadly damning about our human appetite for behaving unethically.

But Michael Cohen’s testimony was something different. Here was a made-for-TV drama in the middle of a television presidency, an inflection point that drove home how unusual this moment is—in its sordidness and absurdity and lawlessness. Yes, cameras were everywhere, but Cohen’s testimony was made for the screen independent of the fact that many, many screens all over the nation were carrying it.

Foremost, Cohen offered a powerful indictment, clearly transmitted: The president of the United States is poison to our democracy. “He is a racist. He is a con man. He is a cheat,” Cohen intoned in his opening statement. The description was, and likely will remain, impossible to forget. Equally so, the fact that not a single member of Congress chose to defend the president against these allegations—or even address the toxicity of the assessment.

Cohen was devastating in his criticism of Trump, offering the American public a startling profile of the man whom he had served so intimately and whom we have elected to the highest office in the land: “He has both good and bad, as do we all,” Cohen said. “But the bad far outweighs the good, and since taking office, he has become the worst version of himself. He is capable of behaving kindly, but he is not kind. He is capable of committing acts of generosity, but he is not generous. He is capable of being loyal, but he is fundamentally disloyal.” There was no subtlety here, no static.

During the course of his testimony, Cohen went on to offer lurid, Technicolor examples of the sins he had committed, under Trump’s guidance and in his name—details that sounded like less-quoted lines of dialogue from a Goodfellas prequel. How did he know that Trump wanted him to lie to investigators and to Congress? “He doesn’t give you questions, he doesn’t give you orders. He speaks in a code,” said Cohen. “And I understand the code, because I’ve been around him for a decade.”

There were extraordinary exchanges, such as this one, about the sheer volume of misbehavior, of potential blackmail and extortion:

Representative Jackie Speier: Okay. How many times did Mr. Trump ask you to threaten an individual or entity on his behalf?

Cohen: Quite a few times.

Speier: Fifty times?

Cohen: More.

Speier: A hundred times?

Cohen: More.

Speier: Two hundred times?

Cohen: More.

Speier: Five hundred times?

Cohen: Probably.

But it was Cohen’s presentation of—for the very first time—hard evidence of presidential crimes that set this moment apart from so many others. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s indictments have offered a road map to willing investigative reporters and interested audiences, but Cohen dangled something much simpler and far more common (and therefore apparently more irrefutable) to American audiences, a document that is sure to make its way onto countless novelty mugs and T-shirts in the coming weeks: a check signed by the president offering reimbursement for payoffs to a porn star.

This was O.J.’s glove and Barack Obama’s birth certificate, a tangible, evidentiary bombshell that signaled, perhaps, the turning of the tide. Republicans on the Oversight Committee did not touch it, but cable news would not let it go. We will be seeing images of that check for years to come—it may very well end up in history books. Seeing, as they say, is believing.

America has been presented few good guys in the Trumpland saga, apart from the handful of dutiful servants, agents of stability, who have been tossed out unceremoniously. Cohen is an unsavory character, a liar and a cheat and a con man himself. But on Wednesday he spoke to the country as a broken man, contrite and on his way to prison. At one point, Representative James Comer asked Cohen to reflect: If Trump was a cheat, what did that make him? “A fool,” Cohen said. There was laughter in the hearing room. There were presumably smiles at home. Cohen had, in the moment, humanized himself, cast himself an unlikely hero in a sordid teleplay.

Trump’s saga now includes not just the endless news coverage and analysis dedicated to chronicling the scandals, but also the televised hearings. In dropping a trail of legal bread crumbs for audiences and lawmakers alike— through allegations of campaign-finance violations and bank, insurance, and tax fraud—Cohen has ensured that there will be more of these testimonials in the coming months. They are unlikely to feature a character with a story quite as compelling, or evidence as plain or a script as emotionally compelling. Dramas such as this one, as with the best of television, are not easily remade. Cohen’s greatest contribution may indeed be related to this: The singularity of his testimony makes it unforgettable. And in a moment filled with so much amnesia, perhaps that is exactly what’s needed.