Like many reporters and editors in DC or New York, I have been yelled at by Michael Cohen. It's been almost a rite of passage for anyone writing about Donald Trump over the past decade. There was no bone too small for his long-time lawyer and fixer to pick when it came to published criticisms of the real estate developer.
My turn came in June 2012, when he called to yell at me over an item the magazine I then edited had written about Trump's forthcoming hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue. He had no real specific complaint or factual dispute. He just didn't like the criticism leveled at Trump by the competitors on the hotel bid, who wondered how he’d ever command the rates the hotel would need to survive.
It was probably one of the top three eviscerations I’ve faced in my professional life. When he was done with his initial yelling, about 45 minutes in, Cohen conferenced in Ivanka, who wanted to argue about just how much care and quality her father would bring to this historic project in the Old Post Office Pavilion. The whole episode sucked up about two hours start to finish.
"Today, I’m here to tell the truth about Mr. Trump."
Which is to say: I’ve experienced first-hand Michael Cohen's full-throated defense of "Mr. Trump," his bulldog-like tenacity, and the bottomless bravado he seemed to possess right up until April last year, when FBI agents raided his life. The ranking GOP member of the House Oversight Committee even opened his questioning Wednesday by quoting an expletive-spouting Cohen yelling at journalist Tim Mak . Such behavior was Cohen’s raison d’etre for a decade. “That was my job,” Cohen told Congress on Wednesday. “Always stay on message. Always defend. It monopolized my life.”
There was none of that bravado from Cohen in the hearing.
The Cohen on display for lawmakers and a nation beyond, riveted to its streaming web browsers, television, and radio sets Wednesday appeared all but defeated—a man who realized he’d made terrible mistakes and had set himself forward on a path of penance, atonement, and—ultimately—redemption. Coming just a day after New York disbarred him, it was hard not to see Wednesday as Cohen hitting bottom.
“The last time I appeared before Congress, I came to protect Mr. Trump. Today, I’m here to tell the truth about Mr. Trump,” Cohen said.
And yet, at the same time, the obviously tired, haggard shell of the once-boastful lawyer appeared eminently credible start to finish. Utterly broken but oddly confident, Cohen gave answers both crisp and precise. He often corrected basic facts from his congressional questioners and clarified specifically both answers and questions. He laid out reasons for seeking redemption that seemed relatable and understandable. In the process, he gave the most sensible narrative to date of Donald Trump’s unsavory journey to the White House.
The day did not reflect Congress’s best as a fact-gathering body providing oversight: After the blockbusters in his morning prepared remarks, Cohen made little news, as both Democrats and Republicans seemed to fumble their way through questioning the decade-long fixer for Donald Trump. GOP members like representative Clay Higgins (R-LA) seemed to lack a basic understanding about the investigation swirling around Trump. And many lawmakers, presented an opportunity to elicit real, new information in a public setting, instead opted for partisan sniping.
Cohen parried most questions easily. The GOP’s line of attack focused on Cohen's credibility generally, while stopping short of attacking the credibility of any of his claims about Trump specifically. They decried the idea of Democrats hosting a man convicted of lying to Congress as if it were some sort of unprecedented watershed. (It wasn’t—Cohen wasn’t even the first witness so convicted this month. That was Elliott Abrams, convicted of lying to Congress in Iran-Contra, who testified on Venezuela).
By the afternoon, Cohen himself even noted the puzzling absence of "Trump" from the GOP's questions.
Still, Cohen's testimony, if you watched carefully, advanced minor parts of the public's knowledge of the now 18 investigations swirling around Trump's orbit: At one point he stated that Ivanka and Donald Trump, Jr., were the two Trump executives briefed on the Trump Tower Moscow project. At another, he asserted that his most recent interactions with the Trump White House, which appear to have occurred last summer, are under investigation by the Southern District of New York, meaning that they likely focus on either the Trump business world or the inauguration, rather than special counsel Robert Mueller's obstruction probe.
Representative Ro Khanna (D-CA) used his question time to prod out of Cohen that Trump Jr. evidently was also the previously unnamed Trump Organization “Executive #2” who participated in the cover-up of the hush money payments to Stormy Daniels and others. Those payments constituted the felony campaign finance violation to which Cohen pleaded guilty last summer.
Perhaps most importantly, though, Cohen admitted—simply and directly—that he was aware of other alleged criminal acts by Trump, not currently public, under investigation by the Southern District of New York. It was perhaps the least surprising conclusion of Michael Cohen's testimony on Capitol Hill Wednesday, though one that would have upended any other presidential administration: There’s likely more crime to come.
The totality of Cohen's testimony made clear that investigators are likely far from done with Trump.
Seeming to add to his credibility, he knocked down specific #Resistance conspiracy theories, saying he had no direct evidence of campaign “collusion” with Russia, and underscoring—under penalty of further prison time—that he’d never been to Prague in 2016 to meet with Russians, as alleged in the infamous Steele dossier, and that he had no reason to believe rumors of a National Enquirer -linked “ Trump love child ” were real either. Interestingly, he implied that he—as the fixer and gatekeeper—had dealt regularly over the years with threatened sex tapes of Donald Trump, but had no reason to believe that the Steele “pee tape” existed.
Yet even he knocked back specific allegations, the totality of Cohen's testimony made clear that investigators are likely far from done with Trump—and that his immediate family, like Don Jr., may very well face criminal liability. With the end of the Mueller probe drawing closer, Cohen’s testimony may pose an ominous omen for the Trump family.
Throughout the day, Cohen was consistent in his description of Donald Trump and the developer-turned-president’s underlying character. Cohen portrayed Trump as a racist, cynical, serial con man—simultaneously deeply vain but cripplingly insecure—who got into the presidential race simply as a marketing endeavor for his various businesses, only to find himself—thanks in part to Russian help and the FBI’s missteps in the Clinton email investigation—the President of the United States. “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,” Cohen said.
In his closing remarks, Michael Cohen had a chilling warning: Now that Trump was ensconced in the White House, it might prove hard to dislodge him. He finished by saying, “My loyalty to Mr. Trump has cost me everything.” And he continued, “I will not sit back, say nothing, and let him do that to the country. . . I fear if he loses the election in 2020 that there will never be a peaceful transition of power.”
The only question, given Cohen’s finger-pointing and the writing on the wall with Mueller, even in recent days , is whether Donald Trump makes it all the way to 2020? It’s clear from Wednesday that the GOP isn’t ready to see their party leader for what he plainly is. But Cohen’s testimony likely pushed closer a public reckoning over Trump’s behavior, both before and during his presidency.
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Garrett M. Graff ( @vermontgmg ) is a contributing editor for WIRED and coauthor of Dawn of the Code War: America's Battle Against Russia, China, and the Rising Global Cyber Threat . He can be reached at [email protected]