Analysis & Comment

Opinion | The Real Reason for the Michael Cohen Hearing

A perjurer soon to be serving three years in prison had a great many charges to level against President Trump on Wednesday. Michael Cohen, once the president’s personal lawyer, told the House Committee on Oversight and Reform of misbehavior and possibly criminal conduct on the part of his former client ranging from paying off mistresses and lying about a real estate deal in Moscow to inflating the value of his assets for insurance purposes and deflating them when paying his taxes.

Yet Mr. Cohen testified that he had no evidence of collusion between Donald Trump and Russia and was never explicitly ordered by Mr. Trump to lie to Congress. Mr. Cohen had inferred, however, that Mr. Trump wanted him to lie. Mr. Cohen’s lies under oath are one of the reasons he is headed to a federal prison.

For all the sensationalism and political excitement of Mr. Cohen’s testimony, it is worth remembering that Mr. Trump has not, in fact, been found guilty of any crime, something that cannot be said about his former lawyer. Would any of the president’s critics credit Mr. Cohen’s veracity if he were testifying in support of his former employer, rather than against him? Whatever you think about Donald Trump, Michael Cohen simply is not an honest person. The idea that he suddenly becomes one as soon as he has something bad to say about the president is far-fetched, to say the least.

High-profile congressional hearings are show business, and this one was no exception. It bears comparison with the highly politicized hearings that a Republican-controlled Congress held during the Obama administration, looking into such matters as arms sales to Mexican drug cartels as part of a botched sting strategy by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (Operation Fast and Furious) and conflicting State Department claims about the circumstances of the 2012 attack by Islamist militants on an American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya. The latter saw Republicans in 2015 call the former secretary of state Hillary Clinton to testify before the House Select Committee on Benghazi. The political significance of the hearing was obvious.

But Benghazi and Fast and Furious were real policy scandals involving life-or-death matters. The Cohen hearing, by contrast, was little more than an opportunity for scattershot attacks on the president and his business dealings. It was hardly a focused investigation into Russian collusion, supposedly the central concern of the president’s critics. It was seven hours of innuendo, speculation and largely unsupported allegations about wrongdoing and offensive behavior of whatever sort Mr. Cohen or his congressional interlocutors cared to bring up.

Mr. Cohen had copies of checks that he had received to reimburse him for his payments to Stormy Daniels, buying her silence about her affairs with Mr. Trump. Sex, money and secrecy are titillating, but are the prosecutors of the Southern District of New York really going to be able to find a campaign-finance crime here? Maybe they will make a case. Mr. Cohen’s testimony certainly did not. The hearing was sleaze for the sake of pure partisan pleasure, not a serious attempt at uncovering lawbreaking.

There is scant possibility that anything Mr. Cohen said Wednesday will even be grounds for Democrats to attempt impeachment. Some in the party are eager to do to President Trump what Republicans did to Bill Clinton 20 years ago. But if impeaching a president for lying under oath about sex was partisan overreach then, impeaching President Trump now, when not even that much legal wrongdoing on his part has been proved, would be absurd. Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives seem to understand this.

Impeaching a president is a thoroughly partisan endeavor, as the only two impeachments that have gone to trial in the Senate, those of Bill Clinton and Andrew Johnson, demonstrated. But up to now, “high crimes and misdemeanors” has involved at least some basis in legal fact — President Clinton’s perjury or President Johnson’s defiance of the Tenure of Office Act. Mr. Cohen’s claims about coded signals from President Trump indicating that he should lie to Congress fall short of the probative value of a stained blue dress.

More public hearings are to come, though Mr. Cohen’s next appearance on Capitol Hill will be to testify for another session behind closed doors to the House Intelligence Committee. Republicans did a poor job getting to the heart of the Benghazi fiasco when they held the gavels before the 2016 election. But at least the G.O.P. was investigating a scandal related to policy. The Democrats’ most high-profile investigations are personal. They might say that is because President Trump is personally corrupt.

On the other hand, while Democrats may find much to dislike about this president’s policies, he has suffered no policy debacles like Benghazi or Fast and Furious. Unemployment is low, wages are rising, and the country is as close to peace as it ever has been since the “War on Terror” began. Whether or not there is proof of Russian collusion or crooked business dealings, the president’s opponents may have to keep their focus on his personal affairs because in seeing to the nation’s interests, he has been embarrassingly successful.

Daniel McCarthy (@ToryAnarchist) is the editor of Modern Age: A Conservative Quarterly.

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