Donald Trump’s former personal attorney had a simple message for Congress on Wednesday: The president is a crook. “I am ashamed because I know what Mr. Trump is,” Michael Cohen, a fixer for Trump for more than a decade, testified to the House Oversight Committee. “He is a racist. He is a conman. He is a cheat.”
Great expectations preceded Wednesday’s hearing. Cohen did not disappoint. He shed new light on the president’s legal perils and the investigations surrounding them. He claimed that Trump, thanks to a tip from Roger Stone, had advance knowledge that WikiLeaks would publish its first trove of stolen Democratic emails in the summer of 2016. He testified that Trump manipulated estimates of his net worth to secure a loan from Deutsche Bank. And he alleged that Trump’s other lawyers changed his testimony to Congress on the Trump Tower Moscow project two years ago.
But the real value of Cohen’s public testimony was the window it offered into Trump’s world. Cohen was a key figure in the insular coterie that runs Trump’s personal and business affairs, and he’s now one of the few people ever to have defected from that group and spoken publicly about its inner workings. His testimony resembled that of a mafia enforcer who finally turned against the don.
A backbreaking road led Cohen from Trump’s orbit to a Capitol Hill hearing. He pleaded guilty to eight fraud-related charges last August, including two counts of violating campaign finance laws for paying hush money to two women with whom Trump had extramarital affairs. In December, Cohen also pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about his role in negotiating business deals in Russia for Trump during the 2016 election. He will begin a three-year prison sentence later this year. The New York state Supreme Court disbarred him on Tuesday.
Cohen adopted a penitent mien before Congress on Wednesday. “I am ashamed of my own failings, and I publicly accepted responsibility for them by pleading guilty in the Southern District of New York,” he said in his opening statement. “I am ashamed of my weakness and misplaced loyalty—of the things I did for Mr. Trump in an effort to protect and promote him. I am ashamed that I chose to take part in concealing Mr. Trump’s illicit acts rather than listening to my own conscience.” On multiple occasions, Cohen reminded lawmakers that he would not benefit from his testimony, and that it would not reduce the length of his upcoming prison sentence.
On Trump himself, Cohen gave a familiar portrait of the president: mercurial, strangely charismatic, and driven by unvarnished self-interest above all else. “Mr. Trump is an enigma,” he told the committee. “He is complicated, as am I. He has both good and bad, as do we all. 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.”
That paradox was a recurring theme in his testimony. “Everybody’s job at the Trump Organization is to protect Mr. Trump,” he later told lawmakers. He even confirmed that Trump’s presidential run was a publicity stunt to enrich Trump further. “Mr. Trump would often say, this campaign was going to be the ‘greatest infomercial in political history,’” he told the committee. “He never expected to win the primary. He never expected to win the general election. The campaign—for him—was always a marketing opportunity.” Making America great again was a racket, in other words, and the American people were the marks.
In Cohen’s telling, Trump uses vague and elliptical statements to instruct his subordinates to commit wrongdoings on his behalf. “Mr. Trump did not directly tell me to lie to Congress,” he said. “That’s not how he operates.” Instead, Cohen said, Trump would “look me in the eye” during the campaign and say that he wasn’t conducting business in Russia—even while Cohen worked on his behalf toward a Trump hotel project in Moscow. “In his way, he was telling me to lie,” he explained.
This description of Trump’s behavior is all too familiar. Former FBI Director James Comey documented how Trump repeatedly tried to elicit his loyalty during their one-on-one interactions in early 2017, telling him that he “needed loyalty.” Though Trump did not directly order Comey to drop the investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn, he made his intentions plain. “I hope you can let this go,” Trump reportedly told the FBI director shortly after Flynn’s ouster that February. The investigation continued apace, and Comey was fired four months later.
“As I found myself thrust into the Trump orbit, I once again was having flashbacks to my earlier career as a prosecutor against the Mob,” Comey later recounted in his book published last year. “The silent circle of assent. The boss in complete control. The loyalty oaths. The us-versus-them worldview. The lying about all things, large and small, in service to some code of loyalty that put the organization above morality and above the truth.”
Trump’s mafioso worldview occasionally surfaces in public, too. After Cohen took a plea deal last year, the president vented about the common prosecutorial tactic. “It’s called flipping, and it almost ought to be illegal,” he told Fox News. Trump contrasted Cohen’s cooperation with the silence of Paul Manafort. The former Trump campaign chairman “refused to ‘break’ - make up stories in order to get a ‘deal,’” Trump wrote on Twitter. “Such respect for a brave man!” Figures like Matt Whitaker are chosen for their loyalty instead of their competence; the former acting attorney general reportedly said his job was to “jump on a grenade” for the president.
Enforcing the Trumpian omerta during Wednesday’s hearing fell to congressional Republicans. Representative Matt Gaetz, one of the president’s most enthusiastic supporters on Capitol Hill, threatened Cohen on Twitter the night before his testimony. “Hey @MichaelCohen212 — Do your wife & father-in-law know about your girlfriends?” he wrote on Twitter. “Maybe tonight would be a good time for that chat. I wonder if she’ll remain faithful when you’re in prison. She’s about to learn a lot.” Gaetz initially defended his post, telling The Daily Beast, “This is what it looks like to compete in the marketplace of ideas.” Only after multiple legal experts warned that it likely amounted to witness tampering, a federal crime, did Gaetz delete the post on Wednesday morning.
Almost every Republican member on the House Oversight Committee also used Cohen’s testimony as an opportunity to prove their loyalty to Trump. Representative Mark Meadows, the leader of the Trump-aligned House Freedom Caucus, used his time to make a quixotic bid to defend Trump from Cohen’s allegations of racism. Representative Jim Jordan and multiple colleagues questioned whether Cohen had signed a book deal, implying he might be profiting from his betrayal. Though some of Cohen’s claims contradicted the collusion narrative set forth in the Steele dossier, Republicans were too busy casting him as an unreliable liar to capitalize on the revelations. “Our colleagues are not upset because you lied for the president,” Representative Jamie Raskin, a Democrat from Maryland, told Cohen during the hearing. “They are upset that you stopped lying for the president.”
In their conduct during the hearing, Cohen appeared to see echoes of how he had behaved over the past decade. “I’m responsible for your silliness because I did the same thing for ten years,” he told GOP lawmakers. “And the more people follow Trump blindly, the more they will meet the same fate as I did.” He had escaped one mob, and almost the entire Republican Party has taken his place.