The former lawyer’s testimony in Congress forces Democrats to reconcile the eagerness to remove the president with the pragmatism of waiting for Robert Mueller’s conclusions
“Faith is taking the first step even when you can’t see the whole staircase.” At the start of a historic day in Washington, Elijah Cummings − chairman of the House Oversight Committee that questioned Michael Cohen on Wednesday − resorted to Martin Luther King to commend Donald Trump’s former lawyer on the step he had taken: betraying the boss he had served loyally for 10 years. In hindsight, however, Cummings’s words also illustrate the dilemma his own Democratic colleagues are facing: Cohen’s testimony will fuel the hopes of those who wish to take the first step towards impeaching the president as soon as possible; but the more pragmatic will warn that the whole staircase, at least for now, is not visible.
Rather than the details of the accusations, what was significant about Cohen’s testimony was his first-hand description of the president’s behavior, an astonishing account of mafia-like conduct that serves as a powerful complement to the more technical work of the federal prosecutors’ investigation. His major weakness: Cohen is a proven liar who will go to prison for being dishonest precisely before the institution where he appeared on Wednesday, among other charges.
Cohen’s testimony poses a challenge for Democrats. Their brand-new majority allows them to use congressional resources to investigate the president, as was seen on Wednesday. However, the most sensitive aspect − and the greatest threat to the Democratic caucus that emerged from the November midterms − is the debate about whether it is appropriate or not to initiate impeachment proceedings against the president, an endeavor that lies with the House of Representatives.
The Constitution confers upon the House of Representatives the power to initiate, by a simple majority, impeachment proceedings to remove the president for “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” Then, a trial is held in the Senate to decide, by a two-thirds majority, if they will convict and remove the commander in chief from office.
Nancy Pelosi, the clever speaker of the House of Representatives, so far has managed to neutralize the debate among party moderates − those elected in more conservative districts − and leftists who are eager to, in the words of the young Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, “impeach the motherfucker.” After Cohen’s testimony, the question is how much longer Pelosi will be able to silence it.
“I haven’t seen one word of it,” claimed Pelosi when asked by reporters about Cohen’s hearing. “Let me say this. I care a lot more about the bad policies of Donald Trump than his bad personality,” she added.
Those who are more moderate know that impeachment is very unlikely to go forward in the Senate, where Republicans hold 53 of the 100 seats. And they fear that pursuing a process that is bound to fail feeds into the image of a radical Democratic Party that the president likes to exploit so much. And they also fear that this will take its toll with centrist voters, whom they believe they need to attract in order to win the 2020 election.
The strategy of the Democratic leadership is to restrain the eagerness of the more outraged party members and wait for the findings of Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation, which is nearing its conclusion. “Let me repeat: We need to wait for the Mueller report and see what it says,” Democratic Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told reporters. Democratic leaders maintain that it would be electoral suicide to make a move before knowing what the special counsel’s conclusions are.
Still, Cohen’s testimony was powerful. Moreover, he provided a check signed by the president, which he claims Trump gave him as reimbursement for hush money payments for an alleged extramarital affair with an adult film star, and which could implicate the president in the crime of illegal campaign financing. The pressure coming from the left to proceed with impeachment is only going to increase. Although Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez herself − who said in a Rolling Stone interview published the same Wednesday that she would vote to impeach Trump, “No question” − was cautious on the way out of Cohen’s hearing. “The documents were just provided this morning so we need to really go through that,” she said.
Those who call for patience end up being on the right side of history: To date, only two presidents have faced impeachment proceedings: Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton, 130 years later. On both occasions, the House of Representatives formally approved the articles, but the Senate refused to convict and remove them. However, another scenario is possible: In 1974, after the Watergate scandal, the House also initiated an impeachment process against Richard Nixon and, before they could take a vote, the president resigned.
The truth is that, for an impeachment process to succeed, Democrats will need to persuade some Republican senators. And if the findings of Mueller’s two-year investigation are compelling enough, they will be for both Democrats and Republicans, as Pelosi already warned. It would be harder for those who are not Trump enthusiasts to defend [the position that] that colluding with Moscow to win the election or trying to obstruct justice is not the high crime and misdemeanor the Constitution talks about.
Apart from Mueller’s investigation, the brand-new Democratic majority allows them the chance to scrutinize, from the House of Representatives, the Trump administration, his businesses and personal finances. All of which will contribute to preparing the case for an eventual impeachment. Going back to the Rev. King’s words, Cohen’s testimony is only the “first step.” No one can see the whole staircase yet.
Warning to Republicans
President Trump − who was in a summit meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un in Vietnam while Cohen testified in Washington − attacked the credibility of his former lawyer, just like Republican members of Congress did during the hearing. “He lied a lot,” said Trump, but remarked that the one thing he did not lie about was when he said that there was no collusion with Russia. The fact is that the former lawyer did not deny that his ex-boss or his campaign colluded with Russia: He said he had no evidence that they did. During one of the most serious moments of his testimony, Cohen turned to the Republican legislators to warn them of the risks of defending Trump. “I’m responsible for your silliness, because I did the same thing that you’re doing now, for 10 years,” he said. “I can only warn people, the more people that follow Mr. Trump, as I did, blindly, are going to suffer the same consequences that I’m suffering.”