Michael Cohen’s testimony was great theater. It was also, largely, a waste of time

Michael Cohen, President Trump's former lawyer, testifies before the House Oversight and Reform Committee on Capitol Hill on Wednesday.
(Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Associated Press)

Republicans on the House Oversight and Reform Committee did themselves no favors Wednesday by approaching Michael Cohen as a man to be tarred and feathered, not probed as a witness. But they raised a question about the hearing that Democrats had no good answer for: What was the point?

Cohen was there to dish dirt on his former employer, erstwhile real estate entrepreneur Donald J. Trump. And Democrats were eager to accumulate it as Cohen recited his view of Trump’s legal, ethical and moral failings. Members of the majority seemed especially keen to find more instances of Trump breaking the law, and Cohen was the insider who supposedly knew where the bodies were buried.

Much of what Cohen offered was familiar, although it still made for great theater at times. Yet few of the accusations concerned actions Trump has taken as a candidate or as president. The main exceptions were the previously known bits about Trump’s continued efforts to build a skyscraper in Moscow even as he ran for president and the payments in 2017 that Cohen said reimbursed him for buying a porn actress’ silence about an alleged tryst with Trump.

Sure, it was titillating to hear allegations about Trump’s rule-bending (or breaking) in the real estate industry. Among many other things, Cohen accused Trump and his minions of artificially raising or lowering the value of Trump Organization assets when applying for loans or paying taxes. No one should get away with bank or tax fraud.


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But as Republicans on the panel pointed out, Congress has better ways to spend its time than cataloguing all the ways Donald Trump has been a bad person. And just because the House Oversight panel has a wide-ranging portfolio, that’s no reason for it to spend its time exhuming Trump’s past. That’s a job for federal and state prosecutors in New York, and they seem to be doing it.

And this panel in particular has more important things to do.

Key officials in the Trump administration spent two years violating scores of ethics rules and norms, ignoring federal laws and trampling on legal procedures in their haste to erase seemingly every initiative by the Obama administration. And they did so without a peep from the GOP-controlled House and Senate.

Now, one of those chambers has new management. There is much work to be done just to make sure that this administration “faithfully executes” the laws of the United States, and to find and correct instances where it has not. The House Oversight panel can and should be a big part of that process.

Recent history offers a lesson here. Democrats ought to recall what happened after Republicans took over the House halfway through President Clinton’s first term, then set about chasing every scandal they could find from his years in Arkansas. Clinton went on to win a second term.