The riveting Wednesday hearing on Capitol Hill, where former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen testified for hours about the man who had employed him for a decade, was most significant just for occurring at all. After two years of supine Republican leadership, the Democrats who took control of the House and its three main investigative committees in January are starting to take the job seriously and probe the long list of credible allegations involving President Trump.
This was the the first, but it must certainly not be the last, televised hearing. Cohen himself suggested some next steps for Congress, and the House appears to be gearing up for more long-overdue hearings into the president’s actions.
It’s a tricky balancing act. As Maryland Representative Elijah Cummings, chair of the House Oversight Committee, made clear, Congress doesn’t want to step on the toes of the Justice Department. Both special counsel Robert Mueller and federal prosecutors in New York are actively investigating various aspects of Trump’s business and political dealings, including potential obstruction of justice and possible collusion with Russia during the 2016 presidential campaign. Democrats are also wary of appearing too partisan.
But since Trump himself cannot be indicted (under longstanding Justice Department policy), and there’s no guarantee that federal prosecutors’ findings will ever become public, congressional committees have every right to assert their role as fact-finders. As long as Congress remains focused on genuine abuses of presidential power and crimes, it would inoculate itself against any accusations of partisan motivations.
Wednesday was an impressive start. Cohen described his former boss as a racist, a con man, and a cheat. Cohen himself is a problematic witness, since he was earlier convicted of lying to Congress. But he produced documentary evidence to support some of his allegations, including a check signed by the president — while in office — that Cohen says he received to repay him for hush payments to Stormy Daniels, a porn star who said she had an affair with Trump. That payment, according to federal prosecutors, could amount to an illegal campaign contribution, since silencing her was intended to affect the outcome of the 2016 election.
What next? To corroborate — or disprove — Cohen’s contentions, Congress should invite Allen Weisselberg, the Trump Organization’s chief financial officer, and Rhona Graff, the president’s executive assistant, to testify. The president’s children, Eric Trump, Ivanka Trump, and Donald Trump Jr., should also be called. If they refuse, Congress could subpoena them.
Congress appears to be moving in that direction; the House Intelligence Committee chair, Adam Schiff, said late Thursday that he planned to have a former Trump business associate, Felix Sater, testify in March. The committee reportedly wants to hear from Weisselberg, too. Meanwhile, Cummings said anyone Cohen named in his testimony has “a good chance of hearing from us.”
Republicans remain in a partisan bunker, and spent most of the hearing attacking Cohen and his credibility, but did not try to learn more about some of the disturbing claims made about the president. If they truly believe Trump has done nothing wrong and Cohen is lying, they should join Democrats in demanding testimony from other members of the president’s inner circle, and supporting subpoenas, if necessary, to get to the truth.
Some things ought to be above partisanship. As the evidence piles up that the president may have violated tax and campaign-finance laws, and may well have obstructed justice while in office, Congress has a duty to the American people to get the facts.