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Witcover: Trump's erstwhile 'fixer' comes clean before Congress

Michael Cohen's explosive testimony before the House Oversight Committee as President Donald Trump's lawyer in charge of making personal and legal troubles "go away," as they say in mobster lingo, may only cause more headaches for the sitting president.

His now widely known account of the crimes Mr. Trump allegedly committed to protect his public image painted a picture of a self-aggrandizing narcissist who would sink to whatever it took to gain and retain celebrity, money and power.

The testimony was music to the ears of the now-majority Democratic members of the committee who were eager to add ammunition to their efforts to combat or even derail Mr. Trump's chaotic, corrupt administration.

In addition to his description of Mr. Trump's personal evils — which he listed as being a "racist," "con man" and "cheat" — Mr. Cohen alluded to incriminating documents, including a check signed by Mr. Trump as partial reimbursement after Mr. Cohen paid for the silence of porn-film star Stormy Daniels, a Trump paramour.

Mr. Cohen characterized it as "part of criminal scheme to violate campaign finance law." Such documents likely would be evidence damaging to Mr. Trump in the event of an impeachment process against him.

If the Democrats welcomed Mr. Cohen's testimony, the Republican committee lost neither words nor time in jumping on Mr. Cohen as a man already convicted of lying to Congress on another charge, and therefore lacking credibility.

The lead Republican on Oversight, Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, made a point of observing, incorrectly, that Mr. Cohen's appearance marked "the first time a convicted perjurer has been brought back to be a star witness in a hearing." He said the Democrats just want to use Mr. Cohen as "their patsy."

One after another, the other Republican members used the bulk or entirety of their allotted time to berate him as a liar. None made any allusion to Mr. Trump's own credibility or offered a defense of it.

Mr. Cohen's only defense for himself was an apology to the committee and a rather off-putting excuse of his own weakness for Trump's guile. Being around Mr. Trump was "intoxicating," he averred. "When you were in his presence, you felt you were involved in something greater than yourself — that you were somehow changing the world."

At the close of the hearing, Chairman Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat, mildly chided his Republican members for their own serial accusations of Mr. Cohen and then volunteered optimistically that he thought the witness had benefited.

"If we as a nation do not give people an opportunity to change their lives, a whole lot of people would not do very well." Then, to Mr. Cohen: "It sounds like you're crying out for us getting back to normal. It sounds to me like you want to make sure that our democracy stays intact."

That last remark also sounded like a mild slap on the wrist to Mr. Trump himself.

Mr. Cohen's testimony brought to mind Nixon aide John Dean. In 1972, Dean went to the president and informed him there was "a cancer on the White House" in the cover-up of the break-in of the Democratic Committee by burglars hired by the Nixon campaign.

Later, when White House tape recordings revealed Nixon talking of paying hush money to the arrested night crawlers, his fate was sealed. The president's friends and supporters in Congress told him in early August 1974 that he lacked the vote to beat impeachment in the House and conviction in the Senate, whereupon he resigned.

If Special Counsel Robert Mueller or other investigators produce damning evidence about Mr. Trump, would he resign to save himself or family members from disgrace or jail? Or will he avoid being so confronted, having found another, more effective fixer than Mr. Cohen?

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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