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OPINION

Zingers and cheap theatrics at the Cohen hearing

By PETER MARKS | The Washington Post | Published: March 1, 2019

Sometimes, cheap theatrics are redeemed by a memorable line. In the desultorily expanded version of “Twelve Angry Men” that played out Wednesday on Capitol Hill with Michael Cohen in the hot seat, Rep. Jamie Raskin came up, gratifyingly, with a gem.

The Maryland Democrat told Cohen: “Our colleagues are not upset because you lied to Congress for the president. They’re upset because you stopped lying to Congress for the president.”

Raskin was speaking from the side of the chamber seeking to give credence to a convicted liar — no easy assignment. But in his catchy phraseology — a zinger that Aaron Sorkin could have written — he summed up the audience’s dramatic conundrum: how to contextualize the statements of the day’s flawed central character, a man who lied for a president to whom he had long been loyal and now claims is a con man and worse.

In hours of repetitious questioning by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, you were grateful for any sliver of insight. For although there were grumbles from some on the committee that the hearing was political theater, the hallmarks of good agitprop were few and far between. Some of the theatrics were so transparent and tasteless as to be appalling, and indicative, too, of how gullible some in Washington imagine the rest of us to be.

This was most clearly in evidence early in the day and during the proceeding’s lowest moment: the jaw-droppingly offensive sight of a white Republican from North Carolina, Rep. Mark Meadows, using a black woman as a prop.

It came as part of Meadows’ sputtering efforts to counter Cohen’s eyewitness account of President Donald Trump as an unreconstructed racist. Declaring that he had never heard Trump utter a racist remark, Meadows indulged his own retrograde theatrical instincts, having a Trump aide, Lynne Patton, stand mutely at his side as he professed indignation at Cohen’s charge.

“Ask Miss Patton!” Meadows demanded, before she mercifully was allowed to escape the cameras. What, a viewer wondered, was this sorry spectacle supposed to prove? It was left to an African-American committee member, Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Mich., to let us know that some politicians understand the need for catharsis, and during her allotted five minutes, she set Meadows straight. “To prop up one member of our entire race and saying that that nullifies (racism) — that is totally insulting,” she said.

Republican members such as Meadows and Jim Jordan, of Ohio, seemed to think snide contemptuousness was the mask their supporters wanted them to wear. They, and others, used their time for relentless attacks on Cohen’s credibility, which accomplished the seemingly impossible job of making him look sympathetic. The Democrats, meanwhile, intuiting that their roles were more precarious, remained sober. Their questions seemed intended as a supporting performance.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., for instance, grilled Cohen about allegations that Trump overvalued his assets for loans or undervalued them on his taxes, and Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., took up the issue of irregularities being investigated in Trump’s charitable foundation. It was Cohen’s prologue — including this description of the president of the United States: “He is a racist. He is a con man. And he is a cheat.” — that was meant to settle in viewers’ minds.

After his opening remarks, Cohen, with his weary, hangdog look, affected a penitent air. A man may be practiced at lying and still be a lousy actor; you didn’t have the sense on this day that he was performing. Or, conversely, that he has gained much in the way of wisdom. He came across most sincerely as a man who regretted his association with Trump and the impact of his crimes on his family. But that’s a long way from someone for whom an audience can feel authentic compassion.

The questioning patterns became so monotonous that when a change-up was pitched by a GOP member, a spectator’s spirits rose. That’s what happened when Michigan Rep. Justin Amash’s turn came and he didn’t ask Cohen for the umpteenth time to recite the crimes (tax evasion, misrepresentation, lying) for which he is to spend the three years in prison.

“What is the truth that the president fears the most?” Amash asked the witness, one of the few occasions all day when someone genuinely looked eager for an answer. The query struck Cohen dumb, and it wasn’t clear whether it was the lack of hostility in the question or the use of the word “truth” that left him speechless.

Peter Marks is The Washington Post’s theater critic.

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