NEW YORK (AP) — To a nation watching on television, Michael Cohen’s congressional testimony on Wednesday was less about the goods he has on former client Donald Trump than it was a question of who to believe.
Cohen bluntly described the president as a racist, con man and a cheat in his opening statement. Yet since it was surrounded by hours of congressional Republicans and allies in the media denigrating Cohen’s character, the question is whether that testimony will resonate or be lost in the noise.
It was treated with importance by the nation’s media. Broadcast television networks broke away from regular programming to show the testimony, along with the news networks, even as Trump was in Vietnam for a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
“I’m not sure how many minds it’s going to change,” said Fox News’ Chris Wallace after a break in Cohen’s testimony. Trump loyalists are not likely to take seriously the words of a man soon headed for three years in prison for crimes committed during his role as the president’s fixer, paying two women to keep quiet about their charges of an affair. Trump has denied the allegations.
“If you don’t like Donald Trump, this is catnip,” Wallace said.
Congressional Republicans sought to undermine the hearing from its outset, with Cohen sitting silent as they fruitlessly argued for an adjournment because they didn’t get a copy of his testimony far enough in advance. Then, during questioning that alternated Democratic and GOP members, the Republicans suggested he was a disgruntled job-seeker who wanted to work in the White House and that his criminal acts made him a worthless witness. They picked apart financial forms to suggest improper actions and questioned him on whether he’d profit from his association with a future book deal.
“All the Republicans want to do is impeach and dirty up Michael Cohen, who’s dirtied himself up just fine,” journalist David Cay Johnston said on MSNBC.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican and Trump supporter who was working as an ABC News analyst on Wednesday, suggested the president’s supporters in Congress hadn’t done well in coordinating their message with the White House. In their zeal to denigrate Cohen, they were doing little to address the substance of Cohen’s testimony.
“He’s sitting in Vietnam right now fuming that no one is defending him,” Christie said.
In one memorable moment, Cohen himself exhibited frustration at GOP cross-examination, saying they were doing what he did for 10 years as a lawyer — protect Donald Trump. People who follow Trump, “as I did blindly, are going to suffer the same consequences that I suffered,” he said.
CNN brought John Dean in as a commentator with a unique viewpoint that viewers of an older generation could appreciate. Dean was a White House lawyer whose congressional testimony about the Watergate scandal was particularly damaging to President Richard Nixon. Dean said he felt Cohen was an effective witness who was damaging Trump.
“People can judge for themselves,” Dean said. “He regrets having lied, he’s telling the truth now and the truth hurts.”
The cable news networks showed different judgment in their importance of the hearing in the hours leading up to it. In the five hours leading up to Cohen’s testimony, CNN spent three and a half of them discussing that story and 37 minutes on Trump’s summit in Vietnam, according to the liberal media watchdog Media Matters for America. MSNBC spent two and a half hours on Cohen. Fox News Channel devoted 56 minutes to the Cohen story and one hour, 46 minutes on the president’s meeting with North Korea’s leader, Media Matters said.
In the hour before Cohen appeared, Fox News anchor Bill Hammer described the former lawyer’s upcoming testimony as “highly defamatory” and wondered why the hearing was being held on the same day as an important international event.
During Cohen’s testimony, at the time he was calling Trump a con man, a chyron on the side of Fox’s screen listed the specific criminal counts to which he had plead guilty.
Cohen’s testimony is “an effort to humiliate the president at a time when he needs to be totally focused on developing a relationship with Kim and coming to some agreement on the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” retired Lt. Gen. Jerry Boykin said on Fox. “I think this is scandalous, quite frankly.”
AP Television Writer Lynn Elber in Los Angeles contributed to this report.