With hot TV lighting glinting off hairs that turned gray over a decade as President Donald Trump’s lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen went before a congressional committee and a riveted nation on Wednesday to reveal the one secret the president of the United States never wanted you to know.
It wasn’t the new details – more like hand grenades than bombshells – that filled out what anyone paying close attention to two years of scandal should have already known: That Trump knew about illegal hush money to a porn star and a Playboy model, and that on some level he was both aware of, and encouraged, the illegal hacking that helped him win.
No, Cohen’s Big Reveal was as simple as this: Donald Trump, our 45th president, thinks that you’re a sucker – and he got elected anyway.
“I am ashamed, because I know what Mr. Trump is,” said his former right-hand man in words that will be forever burnished in the newsreel of American history. “He is a racist. He is a con man. He is a cheat.”
A con man who, according to Cohen, apparently thinks that income taxes are for the little people, as he waved around a $10 million refund check from the IRS even as he was slashing salaries at the Trump Organization – and laughing at how stupid the government was for giving money back to “someone like him.”
A cheater who didn’t just tell Cohen to call up scores of hard-working small business owners to tell them they wouldn’t be getting all or most of the money they’d earned working for Trump – but who then reveled in the details of those calls.
A racist and a phony who wouldn’t even give Cohen a straight answer about how he avoided military service in the 1960s – when 58,000 Americans, many of them black or brown, were dying abroad – until Trump finally said, flatly: “You think I’m stupid, I wasn’t going to Vietnam.”
In fact, Donald Trump so much wants you to not think he’s stupid that he ordered Cohen to send threatening letters to the schools he attended, including Penn, and to the College Board to make sure his grades and his SAT scores never leaked.
But he thinks that you’re an easy mark. How else to explain Trump’s frequent boasting to Cohen that his 2016 campaign was going to be the "greatest infomercial in political history” — that he never expected to win, but thought it would boost the personal brand he’d already ridiculously claimed to Deutsche Bank was worth $4 billion of thin air.
I guess Trump was actually right, because how else to explain that three years later, we’re trying to figure out how we can send back this busted, worthless Veg-o-Matic we ordered over the phone at 3 a.m.
Cohen’s daylong testimony before the House Oversight Committee — on the heels of his Trump-related felony plea — drew inevitable comparison to Watergate whistle-blower John Dean, who spoke of “a cancer on the presidency” back when there was at least a functioning presidency. In 2019, Cohen was here to say the president himself is a malignancy.
That made for a stunning day, yet it also felt weirdly like we’ve seen this movie before … Goodfellas, or so many other Mafia motion pictures where the protagonist begs for redemption (or his life, anyway) once he’s discovered the blood-soaked truth behind the Copacabana glitz.
“Being around Mr. Trump was intoxicating,” Cohen testified, doing an arguably better job of playing Henry Hill than Goodfellas’ Ray Liotta. He pegged Trump’s management style – the coded language, the loyalty demands, calling Cohen “a rat” after he flipped — in terms befitting a Bensonhurst mob boss, not an American president.
He parried most of the thrusts from Republicans determined to cover their ears about any Trump allegations and impugn Cohen as a convicted liar. There were a couple of odd stumbles – like when he claimed he couldn’t remember if there were any other Trump women he’d paid off – and he threw cold water on some of the most-bandied-about rumors, including a supposed Prague trip and the infamous “pee tape.”
But Cohen’s most damaging statements weren’t unexpected revelations — just a Trump insider confirming what many of us have seen from afar from Day One. And the biggest questions Wednesday were the ones that go beyond the purview of a congressional committee.
How did the American political system get so broken that a con man bragging about his “infomercial” while grossly inflating his wealth could win the 62 million votes he needed to leverage the Electoral College? Or get those votes when the racism that Cohen saw on a daily basis was so obvious to many of the rest of us? What is the body politic supposed to do about a president so fundamentally unfit for the job?
"I want to warn you,” Cohen testified. “The more people who follow Mr. Trump blindly are going to suffer the same consequences I have." His words were likely intended for the president’s inner circle, but it also felt like a warning for America.
Cohen is off to prison in May, hoping to come out in a couple of years as “an average nobody” who’ll “get to live the rest of [his] life like a schnook." But how on Earth will we ever repair the nation of schnooks that so easily bought into a fraud like Donald Trump?