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There are many things one could have done on Wednesday, Feb. 27, instead of watching Michael D. Cohen testify in an open session of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Reform. But anyone who skipped the hearing missed an unparalleled lesson on the current plight of American democracy. The Democratic Party won the House in last year’s midterm elections, resulting in the hearing being chaired by Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md., with Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, as the Republican ranking member.

Michael Cohen, 52, worked for over a decade as a lawyer for the Trump Organization during which he developed a close relationship with Donald J. Trump. In congressional testimony, Cohen has freely admitted he was enthralled by Trump’s wealth and aura, and participated in many shady deals at Trump’s behest, even if with some trepidation. Trump’s somewhat unexpected election to the presidency in 2016 and his unorthodox style thrust confidant Cohen into a series of questionable actions prior to the election, plus during the transition and early presidency. They would prove his downfall.

Trump, with no prior elective experience, chose to govern in a daring, ad hoc manner which so alarmed the staid Washington bureaucracy, coupled with the fact he had literally trumped their golden girl, Hillary Clinton, that it decided to checkmate him. A special counsel, Robert Mueller, was appointed to investigate Trump’s alleged collusion with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the presidential election and Mueller zeroed in on Cohen. He was indicted on various illegalities, including campaign finance, income tax and bank fraud. He was convicted and sentenced to three years in federal prison, a $50,000 fine plus disbarment. He should start his prison term May 6. Meanwhile, he has also been under investigation by the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York and the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance. Whew!

During the hearing Cohen was not so much riveting as squirming; trying his best to appear contrite; thereby succeeding in getting in the good graces of Chairman Cummings. Cohen sought to do this by prostrating himself before the committee and expressing mea culpas ad naseum.

“I lied to Congress about when Mr. Trump stopped negotiating the Moscow Tower project in Russia,” he said. “I stated we stopped negotiating in January, 2016. That was false. Our negotiations continued for months later during the campaign.” He also added: “Mr. Trump did not tell me to lie to Congress.” He said although Trump did not tell him to lie, he assumed such. Does that make him a lawyer, liar and clairvoyant?

He also said: “Last fall I pled guilty in federal court to felonies for the benefit of, at the direction of, and in coordination with President Donald J. Trump. It is painful to admit I was motivated by ambition at times. It is even more painful to admit that many times I ignored my conscience and acted loyal to a man when I should not have. Sitting here today, it seems unbelievable that I was so mesmerized by Donald Trump I was willing to do things for him I knew were absolutely wrong.” Think of that: a lawyer willingly doing things he knew were “absolutely wrong.” But then again, hey, he was a lawyer.

Of course, this being America, one is never far from the taboo subject of … well, racism. Cohen called Trump a con man, liar, cheat and racist. His evidence? “While we were once driving through a struggling neighborhood in Chicago, he commented that only black people could live that way. And he told me that black people would never vote for him because they were too stupid.” Well, reliable stats show, for whatever reason, Trump received only 8 percent of the black vote in 2016.

Cohen also testified: “Questions have been raised about whether I know of direct evidence that Mr. Trump or his campaign colluded with Russia. I do not. I want to be clear. But I have my suspicions.” At least we don’t have to suspect Cohen of being a liar. He told us he is.

“For those who question my motive for being here today, I understand. I have lied, but I am not a liar. I have done bad things, but I am not a bad person.” Come again. Is he baffled or trying to bamboozle us?

Of course, although Cohen merely provided some gossipy tidbits by rehashing much that was already well known, the Republicans on the committee sought to shred him to pieces. On the other hand, the Democrats tut-tutted and glossed over Cohen’s confessions. No doubt the Democrats will be rooting around like wild boars trying to find some tasty impeachment nugget in Cohen’s testimony with which to assail the president.

In closing the session, Chairman Elijah Cummings was true to his biblical name. Like the Hebrew prophet of old who believed and taught morality and forgiveness are obtained through ritual worship, he probably saw Cohen as one who had prostrated himself before the committee’s altar and offered absolution.

“You know, I’ve sat here and listened to all this and it’s very painful. You made a lot of mistakes, Mr. Cohen, and you’ve admitted that,” he said in an unctuous, preacher’s tone. “But the fact is you’ve come, you have your head down. But this is part of your destiny. Hopefully this portion of your destiny will lead to a better Michael Cohen, a better Donald Trump, a better United States of America and a better world.”

That was a powerful, heartrending ending. But, with all due respect, Elijah Cummings, Michael Cohen is no Lincoln, Churchill, nor Mandela; least of all, the Almighty. His sordid admissions before you were the servile pleadings of, in his words, a con man, liar and cheat.

Stafford A. Garbutt, of Gary, is a naturalized American citizen and native of Belize. The opinions are the writer's.


Porter County Government Reporter

Senior reporter Doug Ross, an award-winning writer, has been covering Northwest Indiana for more than 35 years, including more than a quarter of a century at The Times.