Friday, March 1, 2019


By Dominique Paul Noth

Michael Cohen responding to a GOP questioner.
The great American parlor game for the last week has been dissecting the one public Michael Cohen hearing.

Even Trump supporters who wanted to dismiss all seven hours as the revenge of a liar were drawn to an insider’s tales of how the Trump world works, of the coded language so hard for prosecutors to explain to build a RICO case, of how assets were inflated to bid on the Buffalo Bills, on threatening letters to colleges to keep Trump’s grades secret.

Those folks sick and tired of TV talking heads reviewing Trump tweets – and his thousands of statements with only a fleeting relationship to reality – were drawn to helping CSPAN, MSNBC CNN, etc.  to one of their best ratings weeks in history.  The leading inquiry from binge watchers in my neighborhood was, “Who taped it?”

Newspapers, too, found almost bottomless appetites for stories offering  5 or 6 or  27 take-aways from the Cohen hearing  and joined the provocative game of which named  insiders  will be called next to testify, the proverbial bread crumbs to future revelations. 

Another ocean of laughter was the GOP.  This format of five minute questions brings its own delays and interruptions of any clear narrative (viewers had to work hard to connect the dots), yet the Republicans hardly ever mentioned Trump in their delaying intrusions to declare Cohen a liar (which is why he is going to prison) and introducing to the record again and again every story about Cohen’s evil past their staff could lay their hands on (which just underlined how much he was risking in testifying against this president).

Cohen is now being called back for a March 6 hearing to develop some leads he provided in private testimony.  The view that nothing he says can be believed may be the mantra for the GOP, but most of the country has had their appetites whetted. Strong instincts toward the basic Christian doctrine on confession and repentance were not washed away in WASP sneers.

Didn’t he lie to banks?  Well, yes, to inflate Trump’s worth. Did he ever bully and intimidate people? Yes, probably 500 to protect Trump and here are the letters.  Next question?  And then Cohen asked the Republicans if they weren’t protecting Trump the way he had for a decade.

The hearings veered off into a curious moment most viewers didn’t understand, involving House rules. (You can sully anyone except a fellow member of the House).   That was when Republican Mark Meadows bridled at the suggestion that he was racist because he used a racist prop – a black woman who worked with Trump, as some sort of signal that the president could not be racist, no more than the Southern plantation owners who bedded black slaves.

Chairman Elijah Cummings
Chairman Elijah Cummings took several minutes to restore order. His touching closing remarks became one of the most replayed segments of the hearing.  

There were many moments that intrigued and clearly suggested further avenues of inquiry.  But two stuck in my mind – the first as confirmation of what I suspected a long time ago that Trump never expected to win and thus played fast and loose with illegal contacts and intimidation techniques that will inevitably nail him.

Cohen is even blunter, suggesting Trump never played to win while I think sometime in the summer of 2016 his hopes against hope changed and he started worrying about cleaning up his reputation. But before then, look at his behavior.

The self-protection games were just what he had learned in New York circles. Cohen called running for president the biggest infomercial Trump could envision to elevate his name.  All the Republicans he met on the campaign trail who believed he was sincere are just realizing how stupid they were. The initial goal was to make mischief. 

Somewhere after destroying a particularly dismal field of GOP candidates (did anyone ever think that Cruz or Rubio or Ben Carson has a chance against Hillary or even Bernie?), Trump began to think of cleaning up his act.  Suddenly he was firing campaign managers right and left.  It all confirms why Robert Mueller and other investigators are likely to have a field day through the early months of his presidency when he fired James Comey and screamed about the Russian witch hunt.

Even then Trump didn’t realize how his firing frenzy played out in the real world. All the highhanded stuff worked with the New York celebrity media, but it was not working with a national media closing in. Deceptions that may have seemed cunning in Manhattan, where Trump also played up his image as a ladies’ man and a real estate maverick, looked dangerously clumsy and inept in the White House. Cohen’s testimony about codes of instruction and payoffs to women led the New Yorker to ask, “Could a man associated with some of Trump’s most ridiculous and amateurish schemes actually seem competent?” The magazine concluded that Cohen has actually helped us see why Trump is so vulnerable.

As the New Yorker said, Cohen “was like a man shouting at a crowd to get off the sidewalk because there’s a drunken driver headed its way—stricken by the fact that he helped hand that driver the keys.”

Even in the hands of a New York amateur borrowing techniques from the Mafia, we will probably never get a perfect evidentiary case against Trump, particularly for those who scorn coincidences and timelines.  It depends on what you define as a high crime and misdemeanor. But in the world of basic crimes and white collar felonies, Trump is already toast.

The other moment that brought me up short was Cohen’s dire prediction for the future. He made the statement even before an outbreak of GOP subservience at the hearings lent teeth to an implausible scenario.

 “Given my experience working for Mr. Trump,” said his once-slavish fixer, “I fear that if he loses the election in 2020 there will never be a peaceful transition of power.”

You only have to work through some obvious scripts of the future to understand how frightening yet believable that fear is. It is only now beginning to dawn on the US public that you can put Russia to one side and Trump has clearly violated any number of laws.  But in this D.C. with the GOP controlling the Senate, do they rise to high crimes?

The Democrats are biding their time on impeachment but passing it in the House already seems secure . . . and somewhat ineffective.  It still requires a Senate trial and only with a “kick him out” conclusion is there a formal way of removing Trump from office.  Otherwise it is just a giant slap on the wrist rather than the devastating blow recorded in democratic history.

Most don’t see conviction happening in today’s Senate.  Few have confidence that Trump will lose -- as he should, if you listen to lifelong Republicans -- the GOP nomination.  The sentiment of the country, absent a war or similar crisis he could manufacture, right now seems firm against his re-election.

My children, recalling my devotion to hours of Watergate hearings, asked me if the Cohen hearing was equally interesting.  No, I said, because out in the nation we could see a pending firm conclusion with Nixon’s inevitable removal at the end of the evidence parade. This was an era when Republicans were capable of standing by the Constitution. Such belief is absent today.

Cohen’s warning should remind us why there is no such Watergate clarity. Trump’s legal problems won’t end with a helicopter wave of impotent triumph and a flight to nowhere, a la Nixon.  Trump’s legal fiascos are on so many federal and state tracks that they cannot end with his removal from office (without one hell of an immunity agreement) and will close in when he leaves office if not before then.  There is no incentive of freedom waiting him at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. Even the vision that he would step aside and get a Pence pardon seems unlikely, since Pence can’t pardon the full range of legal cases facing Trump.

Beyond that, his stock in trade has been not to ever apologize or back down and his tendency is to misread the actual powers the Constitution has given him, which are considerable.

Cohen is asking us point-blank, What if he doesn’t leave? What will the country do and how? If he takes to the mattresses, will the body politic?

Compared to that vision, the nightmares of today are pale shadows for children.  

About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet and consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with archives at  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his DomsDomain dual culture and politics outlets.  He also reviews theater for Urban Milwaukee.

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