Jonathan Bernstein: Republicans struggle to protect Trump while trashing Cohen

Jonathan Bernstein - Bloomberg News

Michael Cohen didn’t push the story forward very much in his testimony to the House Oversight Committee on Wednesday morning, although there were some interesting hints about what federal prosecutors in New York might still be looking into. But he did confirm a lot of what people paying close attention already believed — in particular that president Donald Trump is (as Cohen put it) a “conman” and a “cheat” who frequently directed his personal lawyer and others to do unethical and even illegal actions.

Will any of it make a difference? For the most part, it’s likely that the hearing will just confirm the biases of most solid partisans: Democrats will hear that Trump is a crook; Republicans will hear that Cohen is a convicted liar who can’t be trusted.

Still, there could be some immediate and long-term effects on public opinion.

For one thing, the news media treated his hearing as a big deal: Not only did the cable networks cover it live, but the broadcast networks (ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox) did, too (though it may not have been shown in all markets when local programming was available). The coverage sent a strong signal that something important was going on, which means that a lot of people who don’t normally pay much attention to politics between elections will take notice and probably learn one or two headline-type facts.

And to casual viewers who are not strong partisans, the hearings presented a very bad narrative about Trump. Stories about hush-money payoffs, cover-ups and lies told by the president and the president’s men. These are stories that those following the news know well, but that others may have just ignored. And those folks who don’t follow the news very closely are far less likely to have fixed views of Trump or anything else in politics.

Those within the relatively small group who actually pay a lot of attention to politics and public affairs may find it hard to believe that anyone hasn’t made up their mind about the president long ago. And yet Trump’s approval rating dropped almost 4 percentage points last month because of a blast of bad news about him. It recovered (it’s currently in the low 40s) when the bad news disappeared. Four points may not seem like a lot, but if Trump improved by that much he’d be back to looking like a toss-up for re-election in 2020 — and if he lost 4 percentage points he would look not even competitive.

Overall, my guess is that Cohen isn’t a particularly compelling witness. And he’s actually testified that some of the wilder rumors about Trump are, as far as he knows, not true. But his basic testimony, backed by documents and consistent with plenty of reporting, seems to hold up pretty well. Meanwhile, Republicans on the committee aren’t helping their own cause very much. They’ve repeatedly questioned whether he can be trusted, but haven’t actually discredited the basic things he’s saying. And they have an inherent problem: The worse Cohen looks, the worse Trump looks for relying on him for 10 years.

Not that House Republicans are even trying very hard. North Carolina’s Mark Meadows made a big fuss about how Cohen had supposedly lied on a committee form, but it seems that Meadows — not Cohen — misunderstood the meaning of the form’s question. Then Clay Higgins of Louisiana tried a gotcha line of questioning about the documents Cohen produced for the committee. Higgins asked why Cohen, and not the prosecutors, had possession of those documents; Cohen replied that in fact the boxes he had found them in had been seized by prosecutors when they raided his office, and then returned when they were no longer needed. Higgins not only followed up by asking again why he didn’t turn them over to prosecutors — but then returned to the subject again when he had another turn to ask questions, got the same answer, and treated it as some sort of Gotcha! moment.

All of this suggests not only that Republican members of Congress aren’t interested in learning the truth, but also that their main job as they see it is to generate stories for Republican-aligned Fox News and talk radio hosts, stories that just have to sound good even if they were instantly debunked.

In fact, one of the oddities of the Republican case against Cohen is that they pestered him repeatedly about whether he intended to write a book or find work as a TV pundit, as if those would be sufficient motives for him to theoretically lie about Trump. Never mind that the theory makes little sense; Cohen surely would find as much or more financial success had he remained a loyal Trump ally. What is fascinating is the suggestion that a book deal and a TV gig as a partisan pundit would be goals worth doing jail time to achieve.

So even though we can’t predict how this will play out in terms of public opinion, I will say that the Republican strategy appears designed to secure solid support from the quarter of the nation or so that is solidly Republican, while giving very little to anybody else.

Jonathan Bernstein

Bloomberg News

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University.

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