Michael Cohen spends his first day in the Star Chamber
|Feb 28||Public post|| 5|
I won’t lie, I watched former Trump fixer Michael Cohen’s testimony to the House Oversight Committee. It was something on TV all day that could drone in the background of failing to do anything more important, and if it hadn’t been on, I’d have watched CPAC. I’m a glutton for nihilism.
At least it was entertaining. Without genuine laughter or a few moments of tension, if all you’ve got is older people coughing and shuffling paper and that faint droning sound that seems to accompany every CSPAN broadcast like an amp with a poorly grounded plug, your mind tends to drift to ugly undergirding realities. Boredom, especially plodding and witless boredom, makes it easy to notice that you remain powerless to affect anything happening and effectively mute to anyone even temporarily in charge.
Being a witness to history feels pretty good when you’re in the frame, even if you’re only a wincing-mouthed galoot in a ten-gallon hat watching Jack Ruby plug Lee Harvey Oswald. Just the proximity to it conveys a sense of agency. But the bleak last act of the Republic as another potentially DVR-able event is a play that unfolds passively and with as little accountability as watching a network broadcast of a show you know will be canceled soon. Turn the TV off, turn in back on, knock it off the stand and dance on its broken back, whatever; life as a series of hierarchies exerting themselves downward at you will continue anyway.
So it helped—it really helped—that Michael Cohen repeatedly managed to school a coterie of effete GOP stooges. Even at his best, the president’s former fixer looks like an earless bloodhound, a galumphing oaf with red and baleful eyes, whose only skill is becoming suddenly, gnashingly mad at something once his master tells him to. He was a sub-competent attorney with enough rudimentary skill and fully developed avarice to be a functional fixer, but he wasn’t going to George Bailey or F. Lee Bailey his way out of an all day earfucking, and the only thing that saved him was that all his antagonists are dumber than a pail of oatmeal propping open a kitchen’s back door.
Alex Pareene delivers good takes as a rule, but one of his best in recent years underlined that the number of Republicans in office who got high on their own supply was only increasing at an ontologically catastrophic rate:
The complete and inarguable disaster of the Bush administration…and his abrupt replacement by a black man, caused a national nervous breakdown among the people who’d been told, for many years, that conservatism could not fail, and that all Real Americans agreed with them.
Rather rapidly, two things happened: First, Republicans realized they’d radicalized their base to a point where nothing they did in power could satisfy their most fervent constituents. Then—in a much more consequential development—a large portion of the Republican Congressional caucus became people who themselves consume garbage conservative media, and nothing else.
At one point, claiming that Barry Seal was trafficking cocaine through Mena Airport on Bill Clinton’s orders was an effective way for conservative publications and interest groups to fundraise off foil-gnawing dipshits while muddying media narratives and making the Clinton administration deny another fantastical offense. It was misdirection in the same way that the magician gesturing to a woman in a sequined bikini is misdirection. But believing that Bill Clinton was the head of the Pulaski Cartel just makes you a lunatic or a mark helpful only to people extracting money from you. In a generation, the Republican Party went from being the people who seamlessly made your future disappear before your very eyes to being the people sniffing a felt top hat and claiming the odd smell is proof that the rabbit is still in there but possibly invisible. You can see the problem, even if they can’t.
Don’t get sold by the melodrama. Cohen literally decomposing and standing up amid a rising fog to rattle his chains and warn in a booming reverb, “Don’t become me! Look upon my haunted visage and see all of your tomorrows!” was satisfying, but nobody is going to wake up in the morning and flip a few guineas at a passing urchin and tell him to buy a prize turducken.
Don’t get distracted by the comedy, either. The susurration you heard when Mark Meadows (R-NC) dragged out Lynne “I Worked on The Apprentice, and Now I Work at HUD Because This Shit Just Happens Now” Patton to prove Donald Trump wasn’t racist was people suppressing their groans and the sound of a thousand takes being launched. Most of the takes will be right, and a lot of them will be good, but the whole fiasco was so buffoonish and obvious in its execution that you probably already thought of half of them.
The fact that Trump can’t be racist because “he had a black employee” really re-casts that Jim Crow century of Southern domestic labor and sharecropping. That Meadows—who was eyerolling like an Italian diva suffering a stroke at the suggestion that he could be racist, while Twitter erupted with links to a video of him Birthering on a live mic in 2012—ended his day with a reprise of this same argument when he noted that his nieces and nephews are people of color seems to have escaped him, but you almost have to admire the fact that his own argument degraded in just a matter of hours. “I’m not racist, I even chose to hire a black person” at least involves some choice on the racist’s part. But “I’m not racist because someone who is not me but who is related to me married a person of color and also made other people of color with them or perhaps they merely adopted people of color, I’m not going to elaborate on this” is some powerful brain karate. I don’t have a reconstructed knee and moves like Drew Bledsoe in leg irons because my half-brother has a 40” leap. You’re not even reading this right now, your mom is.
The thing that really warms the belly is that the GOP sent out the only people Michael Cohen can actually outwit, which is to say its members. In their desperation to avoid any semblance of investigating the president, they had to degrade Cohen, but they stubbornly insisted on doing so in a way that simultaneously condemned the president. The most frequent question came in variations on, “Mr. Cohen, you are, are you not, going to prison for lying to Congress,” despite the fact that, as my friend Charles Star noted the other day, he lied to Congress by claiming the president did not commit crimes. That one out of the way, they then turned to the Ur-question of the day, which invariably translated to, “Now, Mr. Cohen, you are someone who actually committed an insane number of egregious crimes on behalf of your former employer, the President of the United States, is that correct?”
Michael Cohen, masterful bozo, handled these people, and they started to have to be real mutants to even stand out. Greg Steube, one of Sarasota’s most recent mistakes, popped off the screen like the guy whose head gets ventilated by Raylan Givens in a late-season standalone episode of Justified, midway through a pine-sap monodrawl about how he done those three down’n Hattiesburg, you musta knowed about him. Bespectacled and blandly waistcoated Clay Higgins of Louisiana took time off from grifting as a Cop on TV to double down on a surreally moronic chain-of-custody hunt for a set of boxes and to answer the question, “What if McLovin aged 30 years and had holes in his brain?”
It was enough to make you almost forget that the Democrats failed to coordinate their questioning to create a narrative for everyday Americans while creating the pretext for further subpoenas and investigations. This could have been a slow walk for a lot of people who don’t read this junk everyday, but why lay a foundation now when you can try to reverse-Jenga a building and see what happens?
Ro Khanna (D-CA) continues to be terrific, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s questions were so focused and fruitful that she threatens to become great enough at her job that Democrats everywhere develop recurring panic attacks at the thought that a shoe, somewhere, might drop. But otherwise, great stretches of day were wasted by opening speeches about how we are an oversight committee, and we want the American people to know that we intend to commit oversight and by grunting overbite-heavy attempts at a tomahawk jam from people whose Twitter feeds provide daily proof that they shouldn’t try dunking on anything.
But with enemies like these, sometimes you don’t need much from your friends. Yesteryear’s forbidding slate of Republican Moriartys is basically Mitch McConnell, that Chuck Schumer fella every now’n’again when he gits bumfuzzled by a wily scheme, and then a few hundred of these assholes—a semi-viscous pool of Gaetz’s seeping out the door at a park restroom. Completely at a loss for what to do with their time, they kept ceding the remainder to Jim Jordan (R-Porky’s), heroically appearing despite still recovering from having his blood infused with 18 ounces of ground pencil graphite every day for 55 years.
Jordan ended things as they began, rising in his seat as his shoulders crested forward like an angry tide, eyes full, his face reddening and expanding horizontally as if filling with subcutaneous rage bladders, his voice adenoiding up past its normal range of aw geez, it’s real a shame about these brake pads, but if I see these I can’t just rotate your tires and then let you drive outta here with them, it looks like we’re gonna have to replace them until reaching the furthest extremity of his unction.
Correct me if I’m wrong, Mr. Cohen, he began, but you are going to prison soon, are you not? And Cohen again acknowledged that he was. And there, in prison, you will shower, will you not, naked in a room of men, some barely more than boys, really. And you will, will you not, stand as water beads on your shoulders and cascades down your chest, glistening over each curve and under the sight of the guards and anyone who might pass by, and they will be able to see everything, will they not, as your hands move slickly over your every contour?
As he reached his climax, he began to weep.
Photo by Gage Skidmore, Flikr creative commons.