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Alternative Fact of the Week: Bearing false witness

Fraudster, cheat, felon, tax evader, greedy person, disgraced lawyer and above all else, lying liar. Oh, not just lying liar but pants-on-fire liar, pathological liar, someone incapable of telling the truth. One by one, Republican members of the House Oversight Committee followed what seemed like a script and hammered Michael Cohen for lying — to Congress, to banks, to the Internal Revenue Service. It became so rote that about halfway through the exercise, Mr. Cohen, who had already admitted to his lies and is headed to prison in two months to pay for them, observed that no one from the GOP seemed the least bit interested in why he was actually there: to testify to the wrongdoings of his former boss, President Donald Trump.

“I’m responsible for your silliness, because I did the same thing that you’re doing now, for 10 years,” the former Trump fixer said in one of his more compelling moments of self-reflection. He later added: “I can only warn people, the more people that follow Mr. Trump as I did, blindly, are going to suffer the same consequences that I’m suffering.”

As much as Mr. Cohen’s public appearance on Wednesday was about his decade working for the man he now describes as a racist, lying crook, the behavior of President Trump’s defenders on the House committee was just as riveting. Much of what Mr. Cohen had to say was familiar territory, from the illegal hush money payoffs to skirt campaign finance laws (along with canceled checks from Mr. Trump) to the Moscow Trump Tower project and other tawdry episodes like threatening the College Board to stay mum about the then-presidential candidate’s SAT scores. What was new was watching elected members of the House take on Mr. Cohen’s former role and use many of the same techniques he was testifying about (bullying attacks, name-calling and misleading claims) to defend the same man he used to defend.

Call it the contagious nature of Alternative Facts. Mr. Trump may have been a half-a-world away in his failed Hanoi summit, but his sensibilities were strongly there in the Rayburn House Office Building. That the president has lied or mislead the public more than 8,158 times, by The Washington Post’s scoring, was of absolutely no interest to the Republicans on the committee. That Mr. Cohen has lied and admitted to it and will soon be punished for it was all that was on their minds. Oh, and that the Democrats had summoned Mr. Cohen to testify and then set restrictions on what could be discussed. Much Republican pearl-clutching was in evidence about that. Never mind that under GOP leadership, there was zero interest in exploring Mr. Trump’s wrongdoings. Zip. Zilch.

And then, of course, there was the matter of Mr. Trump’s racism, a sad circumstance (although arguably not necessarily of great relevance when criminal behavior, and not just odiousness, is under review). Mr. Cohen recalled multiple times when his boss said insulting things about African Americans. The GOP response? Rep. Mark Meadows, a North Carolina Republican, produced Lynne Patton, a longtime Trump associate who is black, to stand up somewhat awkwardly by his side. When Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Michigan Democrat and the first Palestinian-American in Congress, later pointed out that the some-of-my-best-friends-are-black ploy was itself racist, much furor ensued, and Chairman Elijah Cummings was required to intervene. It was only hours later that people remembered Mr. Meadows was a leading voice in the birther movement who is on tape calling on voters to send Barack Obama “home to Kenya.”

All of which recalls Mr. Cohen’s fateful words: “I’m responsible for your silliness.” He recognized he was a Typhoid Mary of the alternative fact universe. Mr. Trump’s defenders are carriers of the contagion now, but how much further will it spread? When does the country return to a time when facts are treated as facts and obvious lies are given no traction? Mr. Cohen’s Republican critics were right about one thing — the broken fixer is no angel, but then neither is his former boss. One is destined for three years in a federal lockup; the other remains liar-in-chief free to fly around the world to defend dictators involved in the killings of journalists like Jamal Khashoggi and imprisoned college students like Otto Warmbier.

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