Thursday, February 28, 2019
"Too many representatives chose to bloviate instead of interrogate — except for one.
Ms. Fredrickson is the president of the American Constitution Society.
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez acted like a good prosecutor while questioning Michael Cohen, establishing the factual basis for further committee investigation.
Photo by: Joshua Roberts/Reuters
On Wednesday, Michael Cohen, President Trump’s one-time personal lawyer and “fixer,” testified in front of the House Oversight and Reform Committee about what he says are a variety of shady practices he participated in when working for the president. People around the country awaited riveting testimony, some going so far as to join “watch parties” in bars.
But like so many congressional hearings, the fireworks were quick to flame out. Even with the tantalizing opportunity to grill Mr. Cohen on the myriad ways his former boss most likely sought to evade the law and avoid his creditors, many members of the committee, from both parties, could not resist their usual grandstanding.
Consider the line of questioning from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. She asked Mr. Cohen a series of specific questions about how Mr. Trump had handled insurance claims and whether he had provided accurate information to various companies. “To your knowledge,” she asked, “did Donald Trump ever provide inflated assets to an insurance company?” He had.
She asked whether Mr. Trump had tried to reduce his local taxes by undervaluing his assets. Mr. Cohen confirmed that the president had also done that. “You deflate the value of the asset and then you put in a request to the tax department for a deduction,” Mr. Cohen said, explaining the practice. These were the sort of questions, and answers, the committee was supposed to elicit. Somehow, only the newer members got the memo.
[Get a more personal, less conventional take on political developments, newsmakers, cultural milestones and more with Frank Bruni’s weekly newsletter.]
Ms. Ocasio-Cortez continued, asking, “Do you think we need to review financial statements and tax returns in order to compare them?” She pressed Mr. Cohen for the names of others who would be able to corroborate the testimony or provide documents to support the charges. In response, Mr. Cohen listed the executives Allen Weisselberg, Ron Lieberman and Matthew Calamari — names that, thanks in part to Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, we will probably hear more about in the coming months.
These questions were not random, but, rather, well thought out. Like a good prosecutor, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez was establishing the factual basis for further committee investigation. She asked one question at a time, avoided long-winded speeches on why she was asking the question, and listened carefully to his answer, which gave her the basis for a follow-up inquiry. As a result, Mr. Cohen gave specific answers about Mr. Trump’s shady practices, along with a road map for how to find out more. Mr. Cohen began his testimony calling Mr. Trump a “con man and a cheat”; In just five minutes, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez actually helped him lay out the facts to substantiate those charges.
Unfortunately, too few of her colleagues followed suit. In his testimony, Mr. Cohen claimed numerous ethical breaches and criminal acts on the part of the president, many for which Mr. Cohen himself apparently served as main actor. He spoke of illegal campaign payoffs, rigging of electoral polls, threatening people who had crossed the president, possible witness tampering, and even falsifying financial records. He spoke of conduct in and out of office that would cross even the most generous reading of ethical and legal boundaries.
All of these areas offered fruitful avenues for exploration. But instead of asking probing questions and eliciting damning evidence from Mr. Cohen, too many committee members chose to make a speech. Jeffrey Toobin of The New Yorker tweeted in frustration, “Bipartisan incompetence in the questioning at #cohen hearing. All they do is make speeches, and fail to listen to answers or follow up.” He then tweeted sample follow-up questions, hoping desperately that someone might just try. He did give credit to several members who understand the art of questioning, including Representatives Katie Hill and Jackie Speier. But it is shocking how few members actually understand the basic function of a hearing — or chose to ignore collective goals in favor of showboating.
As someone who has worked on the Hill and as a nonprofit advocate, I am accustomed to the frustration of opportunities lost, of questions not asked, or of witnesses who are allowed to get away without really answering a question. Often the stakes are low and so the cost is not so great.
But as Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings’s outstanding closing remarks made clear, what we face now as a nation is so consequential, as the president faces multiple inquiries about possible collusion with a foreign power, that we need more from members of Congress. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez has many followers on social media. I hope her colleagues will start to follow her example in the hearing room."
Opinion | How Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Won the Cohen Hearing - The New York Times