The House Oversight Committee nine-hour-long hearing featuring testimony by Michael Cohen went much as you might expect for much of the day. Following Cohen’s blistering opening statement, Democrats spent their time moving point by point through Cohen’s statements and evidence. Meanwhile, Republicans devoted exactly zero percent of their time to ask about the actual crimes revealed by Cohen’s statements. Throughout the day, Republicans revealed themselves as a party that not only defends Trump’s actions but one that he thoroughly adopted his tactics as their own, by spending almost all their time making personal attacks on the witness without concern to his statements.
But then, just before an afternoon break for a talk, the tone of the hearings changed. When questioning passed to Democrat Stacey Plaskett (Virgin Islands). In a sharp series of questions, Plaskett not only firmed up information around the payments that Trump provided to Cohen, but also pushed back directly against Republicans who had whined repeatedly about how the hearing was “stealing time” from other topics. “Thank God,” said Plaskett, “the Democratic majority can walk and chew gum at the same time.”
When the hearing came back from the break, the whole tenor of the hearing shifted. There were two good reason for this — the imbalance of Democrats and Republicans on the committee allowed a series of Democrats to question Cohen without five-minute interruptions for yet another recitation of the same Republican talking points, and the Democrats who talked in that afternoon session brought the heat. It wasn’t that previous Democrats had not done well. It was that Plaskett and those who followed her performed with excellence.
What came next was Ro Khanna, and Jimmy Gomez, and Ayanna Pressley, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Rashida Tlaib. And every one of them drove another nail in not just Trump’s coffin, but the coffin of the whole Republican scheme.
The afternoon began with Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna (California). Returning to the checks that Trump used to pay off the money given to Daniels, Khanna carefully, but quickly, pushed Cohen to connect the “Executive 1” of court documents from the SDNY to Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg. Then he made it clear that Donald Trump Jr was the “Executive 2” mentioned in those documents. And on that base, Khanna built a point that could be far more critical to the future of hearings, investigations, and potential impeachment than anyone seemed to note at the moment. Forget campaign violations. The actions that Trump, Trump Jr, Cohen, and Weisselberg took that day were a “criminal conspiracy of financial fraud.” Trump’s intentions may be required to prove that he committed felony campaign finance violations. They are not required to show that he committed “garden variety fraud.”
When Democratic Rep. Jimmy Gomez (California) came up to bat, he moved to Trump’s taxes. Though Cohen had earlier asserted that he didn’t know the details of Trump’s taxes, he had hinted that he knew something about Trump’s motivations in hiding them. Gomez seized on this, getting Cohen to testify that Trump told him that he wouldn’t release his taxes because if experts looked at Trump’s taxes “he could end up in an audit.” As with some of the information extracted by Khanna, this mostly seemed to avoid the attention of media which followed the hearing with a pre-scripted “partisan divide” storyline, but what Cohen said in that moment should have come with a thundercrack. Throughout the campaign, Trump claimed that he couldn’t release his taxes because “they were under audit.” But what Cohen stated under questioning from Gomez was that Trump was worried that if anyone saw the details of his taxes, he would be under audit. That’s a huge difference. It both catches Trump in a repeated lie to the nation, but and provides a perfect reason for looking at Trump’s taxes now, Russia or no Russia.
Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (New York) was next. She followed up on statements Cohen made earlier in the day about how the National Inquirer owner David Pecker had moved to “catch and kill” other stories for Trump, including some not related to women he had slept with. Ocasio-Cortez got the names required to conduct a follow-up hearing on this issue, then moved on to another item from earlier in the day — how Trump had manipulated his net worth by alternatively inflating or deflating the value of assets to suit his needs. Ocasio-Cortez made it clear that in doing so, Trump had stolen public funds for development projects, evaded paying proper taxes, and defrauded banks. She did all this in about three minutes flat, while simultaneously capturing a list of names necessary to follow up on those issues.
Then it was the turn of Democrat Rep. Ayanna Pressley (Massachusetts) and time for a pivot to another area where Trump is completely vulnerable. After an intro, Pressley moved to question Cohen about his knowledge of the Trump Foundation and how Trump had set up straw purchases to misuse supposedly charitable funds. This area, under investigation by both the SDNY and already the subject of charges from the State of New York, had been mostly ignored earlier in the day,. Pressley came back to it here, moving through the issues and, as others had done, connecting the names and the documents that would be of value in furthering an investigation.
Khanna, Gomez, Ocasio-Cortez, and Pressley alone laid the groundwork on which Democrats can legitimately demand Trump’s taxes, insist on appearances by Trump Jr and Trump CFO Weisselberg, and review Trump’s use of public funds, his manipulation of taxes, his falsification of asset values related to his inheritance, and his attempts to obtain bank loans using false information. They did this bang, bang, bang, with barely a moment’s wasted time. It was a performance that should have had any Republican paying attention shaking in his ostrich-skin faux cowboy boots.
Finally, Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib (Michigan) took the floor. At first, it seemed that Tlaib wasn’t following the same playbook as the others. Rather than moving immediately to questioning Cohen, she opened with the kind of self-referential story that too often wastes the tiny amount of time Representatives have to pose questions in a hearing. But then it became clear that Tlaib’s role wasn’t to extract a final thought from Cohen, but to up end the whole Republican approach to the hearing.
Earlier in the day, Republican Mark Meadows responded to Michael Cohen’s accusations that Trump was a racist by pulling in a single former Trump Organization employee who happened to be black. The move left Cohen embarrassed. It left Tlaib near-glowing with righteous anger. She slapped down Meadows’ use of a black woman “as a prop,” and when Meadows rose in blubbering high dudgeon to demand she take it back, Tlaib read it again. If the moment seemed close to derailing the hearing, it was because it was supposed to derail the hearing. Rashida Tlaib made it clear to Meadows, and to every Republican watching, that the kind of tactic that worked when the people in the room were all white men, was no longer going to fly. And Meadows attempts to invoke his relationship with committee chair Elijah Cummings and “nieces and nephews of color” only left him looking more ridiculous and stranded in a position that is was suddenly, just like that, no longer tenable.
The final six Democrats to speak all laid bricks, not in a wall, but on a path that shows the way to get at the truth about Trump. At the same time, they showed that they are not there for either self-promotion, entertainment, or that of their “colleagues” on the other side of the aisle. If ranking member Jim Jordan was still wearing the same sneer at the end of the hearing as he had at its opening, it was only because he didn’t have the brains to notice what had just happened.
Allen Weisselberg is going to be called before the committee. Donald Trump Jr is going to be called before the committee. Donald Trump’s taxes, financial statements, and loan applications are going to be subpoenaed. Just about every deal the Trump Organization has made in the last two decades is going to be reviewed. And to see how those hearings are going to go, it only requires looking at the last half hour of the hearing on Wednesday.
Plaskett took office in 2015, so she’s not exactly a freshman. Khanna and Gomez came in 2017. But Ocasio-Cortez, Pressley, Tlaib all just took their seats in January. And the no-nonsense attitude, incisive questioning, and sheer competence displayed by this whole class of newer faces in the House should terrify Republicans. By the time the day ended, it was clear that the newcomers and relative newcomers had taken the time to review the morning’s statements, pick out points of interest, divide their attack from different directions, and coordinate their actions. They weren’t six Democrats each seeking a moment in the spotlight. They were a team.
There was one more performance that Republicans should also find daunting — that of chairman Cummings. In how he handled the committee throughout the day, and in his closing remarks, Cummings showed that he not only will not abide nonsense, but has the experience, determination, and sheer gravitas to lay down the law in his committee. His closing statement was one for the ages, a statement that left Republicans looking both diminished and simply dim.
More hearings. Like this.