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Congressman Elijah Cummings keeps reins on Michael Cohen hearing: 'I know it's painful being called a rat'

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), chairman of the House Oversight Committee, gives his closing statement.

Michael Cohen’s composure had held up fairly well as he was called a liar, a terrible lawyer, a future federal prison inmate and more as he testified before the House Oversight Committee on Wednesday. But what finally brought him to tears was when the committee chairman, Baltimore Congressman Elijah Cummings, spoke sympathetically to him about what his former client, President Donald Trump, has called him.

“I know it’s painful being called a rat,” Cummings said in his closing statement. “I live in the inner city of Baltimore,” the congressman went on. “When you call someone a rat, that’s one of the worst things you can call them … because that means snitch.”

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It was vintage Cummings, free-forming his thoughts after a day in which Cohen had testified about Trump as a “racist,” “conman” and “cheat,” who had paid off women such as Stormy Daniels for their silence during the 2016 campaign about past affairs. With preacherlike intonations, he spoke about the toll on Cohen’s family, invoking his own daughters at one point, and how Cohen’s destiny, and the country’s, was to come out better on the other side.

“I mean that from the depths of my heart,” Cummings said as a stricken-looking Cohen wrung his hands, wiped his eyes and gulped from a water bottle. “When we’re dancing with the angels, the question will be asked: In 2019, what did we do to make sure we kept our democracy intact?”

Cummings’ soaring rhetoric came in contrast to the partisan bickering that had characterized the rest of the hearing. From the start, Republicans on the committee decried that Cohen, who previously pleaded guilty to lying to Congress, was invited back by the Democrats who after the 2018 midterms had taken control of the House.

Ohio Congressman Jim Jordan castigated Cummings from the start for even having the hearing. “Mr. Chairman, here we go. Here we go. Your first big hearing, your first big witness: Michael Cohen … a guy who is going to prison in two months for lying to Congress.”

Jordan also linked the hearing to an effort by California billionaire Tom Steyer to get House members to begin impeachment proceedings against Trump. “Guess where?” Steyer’s campaign took him, Jordan said at the hearing. “Chairman Cummings’ district in Baltimore.”

Cummings responded in his closing statement, thundering against those who said, as he put it, “Oh, oh, this is the first hearing,” and saying, no, the first was on soaring prescription drug prices and the second was on voting rights.

Another Republican, Mark Meadows, of North Carolina, interrupted Cummings as he opened the hearing, demanding that it be delayed because Cohen hadn’t provided evidence within the required time frame. Members voted to hear Cohen.

But the contention between members kept Cummings, and his gavel, busy throughout. Cummings had to referee a fiery squabble between freshman congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, a Michigan Democrat, and Meadows over his invitation of Lynne Patton, a Trump administration official who is black, to the hearing to counter Cohen’s assertions that Trump was a racist. Trump said blacks were too stupid to vote for him, and challenged him to name a country run by a black person that wasn’t a “shithole,” Cohen said.

Tlaib said it was racist for Meadows to use Patton as a “prop,” prompting the North Carolina congressman to demand her words be stricken from the record. Cummings navigated the potential minefield by giving Tlaib the opportunity to clarify she was calling the act, not the congressman, racist. Meadows appealed to Cummings, saying he’d defended him in the past, adding, “you and I have a personal relationship that’s not based on color.”

Cummings, after referring to his parents as onetime “sharecroppers, basically slaves,” surprised many when he acknowledged that Meadows was one of his best friends.

“I could see and feel your pain, I feel it,” Cummings told Meadows. “And so I don’t think Ms. Tlaib intended to cause you that, that kind of pain and frustration.”

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