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WASHINGTON – At several key junctures Wednesday during former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen's testimony before a House committee, congressional Republicans appeared to miss opportunities to defend the president from some of the most potentially damning claims Cohen made about him.
In other instances, when new information about the president was revealed during exchanges Cohen had with sympathetic Democrats on the committee, it went unchallenged by Republicans, who quickly moved on to other topics, or else revisited well-trodden subject matter.
The cumulative effect over the seven-plus hours of Cohen's testimony was that Trump, who was in Vietnam meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, was left looking both legally and personally exposed – without a vigorous defense from members of his party who have traditionally gone to bat for him in public.
Instead of using their time to defend Trump or challenge Cohen's more shocking claims, the lion's share of time allotted to Republicans during the Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing was used to attack Cohen's credibility as a witness.
"There's no truth with you whatsoever," said Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona. "Liar, liar, pants on fire," he continued. "No one should ever listen to you and give you credibility."
While Cohen had indeed pleaded guilty to lying to Congress, it was relatively low-hanging fruit. The third paragraph of his opening statement acknowledged that his credibility was in tatters, which is why he brought documents with him to the hearing.
Other attacks that Republicans leveled at Cohen also missed their marks. Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina had several exchanges with Cohen accusing him of failing to properly disclose his work for a bank based in Kazakhstan.
But it wasn't clear whether Meadows was accusing Cohen of failing to register as a foreign agent with the Justice Department, or of failing to report the work on an official form that Cohen filled out before his appearance. Such a failure would amount to lying to Congress, a different crime altogether.
"With regards to your false statement you submitted to Congress," Meadows said at one point. "In here it was very clear that it asked for contracts with foreign entities over the last two years. Have you had any foreign contract with foreign entities?"
"I believe it talks about lobbying. I did no lobbying," said Cohen. "They are not governments."
Indeed, the form requires only the disclosure of "contracts or payments originating with a foreign government and related to the hearing's subject matter," neither of which would apply to the bank.
To further confuse matters, Meadows later tweeted that he had "just entered a referral for criminal investigation of Michael Cohen, who violated the Foreign Agents Registration Act by illegally lobbying on behalf of foreign entities without registering."
But FARA registration is not required for individuals representing foreign companies in the United States, only foreign governments. And it's certainly not required if, as Cohen said, he wasn't lobbying in the first place.
Other attacks on Cohen focused on his performance as Trump's attorney, including a line of questioning from Rep. Kelly Armstrong, R-N.D., who attacked the recently disbarred Cohen for hypothetically violating attorney-client privilege after Cohen said he would be willing to turn over tapes he made of conversations with clients to the committee.
"You just immediately responded that you would hand over tapes to this committee without any of your previous clients' waiving [attorney-client] privilege," Armstrong said to Cohen.
"I'm not the only one in possession of those documents," Cohen replied, referring to the fact that the FBI seized the tapes when they raided Cohen's office in 2018.
"I know lawyers that would go to jail before they would violate attorney-client privilege. … And you just said, 'Absolutely, I will turn those over,'" Armstrong continued.
"Just trying to cooperate, sir," said Cohen.
"At the expense of clients who have never waived privilege?"
The exchange continued like this for several more minutes, Armstrong railing at Cohen for his hypothetical willingness to do something he hadn't even done.
Shortly before the Armstrong exchange, Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., accused Cohen of failing to adequately protect Trump by not stopping him from potentially committing a campaign finance violation related to porn star Stormy Daniels, aka Stephanie Clifford, during the 2016 race.
"Were you a good lawyer to Mr. Trump?" Massie asked Cohen.
"I believe so," he replied.
"When you arranged a payment to Miss Clifford, you say in your testimony that you did so, quote, 'without bothering to consider whether that was improper, much less whether it was the right thing to do.' You said that, end quote. That's your testimony today. You said you didn't even consider whether it was legal. How could you give your client legal advice when you are not even considering whether it's legal?"
"I did what I knew Mr. Trump wanted," Cohen replied.
"So you feel that by … ignoring any conscience, if you have one, that you were protecting Mr. Trump?" Massie pressed.
"I was trying to protect Mr. Trump," Cohen responded a moment later.
Glaringly absent from all these exchanges with Cohen, and from practically the entire hearing, were attempts to defend Trump himself, or to push back on Cohen's claims that the president had directed him to commit crimes.
This was especially evident when Cohen dropped one of his bombshells. He told Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., that the content of his most recent phone call with Trump was "actually something that's being investigated right now by the Southern District of New York, and I've been asked by them not to discuss and not to talk about these issues."
For the next Republican at the mic, in this case, Texas Rep. Michael Cloud, this might have been a good time to press Cohen on whether he had played a part in these wrongdoings he claimed to know about. Or perhaps to emphasize that these fresh allegations Cohen was airing against the president were both vague and presented without any evidence.
Instead, Cloud changed the subject, and used his time to accuse Cohen of seeking to profit from his relationship with Trump.
"You are set to go to jail for a couple of years, and you'll come out with a multimillion-dollar book deal," Cloud told Cohen. "So my question is, will you today commit to donate any further proceeds from book deals and film revenues to charity?"
"No," Cohen replied.
"Thank you," Cloud said, before giving Meadows the remainder of his allotted time.
Meadows used it to ask Cohen more questions about the Kazakh bank.
Correction: Rep. Paul Gosar is an Arizona Republican. An earlier version misidentified his state.