Michael Cohen was the center of attention on Wednesday in Washington, delivering a broad-scale takedown of President Donald Trump, with the eyes of the country — or at least people who were glued to cable TV — watching.
But in a hearing as high-profile as Cohen’s appearance before the House Oversight Committee — one of the most highly anticipated events on Capitol Hill in a generation — there were lots of other storylines (and actors) who stood out, for reasons both good and bad.
I watched all six-plus hours of the hearing, then read back through the transcript, and I am now ready to declare some of the best — and worst — performances by members of Congress at Wednesday’s Cohen hearing.
*Elijah Cummings: The Oversight Committee chairman had a very tall task — fairly oversee a hearing that was, by its very nature, deeply partisan. And do that with a committee membership that included some of the loudest and highest profile voices on the conservative right and the liberal left. The Maryland Democrat performed that balancing act admirably, as things stayed, generally, under control.
Cummings also had two standout moments of his own: 1) He managed to de-conflict a fight between Reps. Mark Meadows (North Carolina) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan) over allegations of racism 2) His closing remarks were a heartfelt appeal to how politics can and should be that quickly went viral.
*Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: It’s very rare in a House committee hearing for people to pay much attention to the least senior members on the panel. Usually, all the questions have already been asked and all the revelations have already been made by the time it gets to the 20th Democrat (or Republican) to ask questions.
But because AOC is, well, AOC, everyone was waiting to see how she handled her first major moment as a member of Congress. And man, did she nail it. While Ocasio-Cortez has faced criticism — fairly, in my mind — that she has said things without checking their veracity in her first few months in Congress, she was fact-based and incisive in her questions for Cohen on Wednesday. She zeroed in on the alleged “treasure trove” of “catch-and-kill” documents that AMI president David Pecker allegedly possesses and on the idea that Trump may have devalued his assets to pay less in taxes. Asked about her successful questioning, AOC attributed to her background as a waitress and bartender: “Forces you to get great at reading people + hones a razor-sharp BS detector.,” she tweeted.
* Jim Jordan: The Ohio Republican spent many minutes working to undermine Cohen’s testimony on Wednesday, partially because plenty of GOP committee members turned their extra questioning time over to the ranking member. Which, honestly, played directly into Jordan’s strengths. He’s not in the business of getting positive reviews from the blue checkmarks on Twitter. He’s in the business of showing conservatives, the Fox News crowd and most importantly President Donald Trump that he is a fighter for their values. Jordan’s smirking disdain for Cohen killed among his target audience.
Points off for Jordan’s ridiculous policy of not wearing a suit coat. Come on man!
* Katie Hill/Harley Rouda: These two freshman Democrats didn’t get to ask questions until the hearing was already hours old, but they each stood out from their more senior colleagues in the effectiveness of what they asked. Rouda’s questions on Felix Sater — and Trump’s relationship with him — shed light on a piece of the broader story that we didn’t know much about before. Hill drilled down on just how involved Trump was on the in and outs of the payout to porn star Stormy Daniels. (The answer was VERY involved.) For Hill in particular, I thought it was a star turn; expect to see more of her on cable TV in the weeks and months to come.
* Justin Amash: The Michigan Republican did something on Wednesday that almost none of his GOP colleagues seemed willing to even try: Ask Cohen questions about his relationship with Trump that might actually shed some new light on not only their relationship but on the President of the United States. Amash got Cohen to explain his contention that Trump might never have asked associates to directly lie but that the President spoke in a “code” that made his intentions clear. And Amash asked Cohen one of my favorite questions of the entire hearing (which Cohen did not answer) “What’s the truth that [Trump] fears most?
* Mark Meadows: The chairman of the House Freedom Caucus was out for blood in the hearing; he could barely contain his anger and contempt for Cohen every time he spoke. The stunt of bringing Lynne Patton, a longtime African-American employee of the Trump organization (and now a member of the administration) to stand behind him as a prop to prove that Trump isn’t racist was a very, very bad idea. And Meadows’ victory lap when he seemed to catch Cohen making a filing error in regard to foreign clients was a little overdone — OK, a lot overdone — given that the President’s son-in-law, who also happens to be one of the most influential advisers in the White House, has had his fair share of disclosure issues.
* Clay Higgins: The Louisiana congressman seemed to think he had hit on a MAJOR breakthrough when Cohen talked about finding a copy of a $35,000 check from Trump while going through boxes of documents and records. “Are these not boxes that should have been turned over to investigative authorities during the many criminal investigations you’ve been subject to?” Higgins asked Cohen in his best “True Detective” voice. Cohen made clear that the boxes had been seized by federal authorities when they raided his house in April 2017 and had been subsequently returned to him. Higgins seemed unswayed by that fact, following up with this: “If they included data pertinent to crimes that you’ve committed, should they not have been turned over and remanded to investigative authority?” Dude…
* Rashida Tlaib: Tlaib was the last person to ask questions of Cohen in the hearing. But she didn’t really ask Cohen anything — instead choosing to blast Meadows for what she considered the racist act of using Patton as a prop to show that Trump couldn’t possibly be racist. Here’s what she said: “Just because someone, has a person of color — a black person working for them, does not mean they aren’t racist. And it is insensitive that some would even say it’s — the fact that someone would actually use a prop — a black woman in this chamber, in this committee, is alone racist in itself.” Meadows went crazy, demanding that Tlaib’s words be taken down — which is an actual punishment in the House(!) — and insisting that Cummings, with whom he is close friends, defend him from allegations of racism. Tlaib tried to clarify that she wasn’t calling Meadows a racist but rather saying that someone who does the exact thing Meadows had done is doing something racist. That’s a distinction without a difference. If you are going to say someone is a racist, just say it. And stick by it.
* Paul Gosar/Bob Gibbs: Both Gosar, of Arizona, and Gibbs, of Ohio, seemed either woefully unprepared for the questioning, overwhelmed by the moment or both. Gosar’s questioning was built on the idea that Cohen’s plea deal and turn on Trump was all about the Twitter handle @womenforcohen. He never totally explained that, uh, interesting, theory. Before Gibbs yielded his time to Jordan, he let loose with this dynamite sentence: “And so, that just, kind of, you know, the President is working tirelessly, and you come and make these allegations.” So, because Trump is, by Gibbs’ assessment, working hard, no one — including Cohen — is allowed to criticize him or detail potential criminal activity he may have engaged in? Got it! Thanks, Congressman Gibbs!
* Matt Gaetz: When the Florida Republican strolled into the hearing room — pocket square perfectly in place! — on Wednesday morning, I quickly pulled up a list of the members of the Oversight Committee and confirmed that Gaetz wasn’t on it. So why was he there? To hear Gaetz tell it, he wanted to observe Cohen’s testimony and hoped that he might get to ask a few questions. Oh yeah, the Democratic majority is definitely going to let a guy who tweet-threatened Cohen less than 24 hours before that just, you know, ask a few questions. Anyone else in the audience got a question for the witness? Let’s open up the phone lines. You don’t even go here, Matt Gaetz!