If President Donald Trump’s family and finances were some kind of red line, no one told Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. During the final hour of Wednesday’s hearing with former Trump personal attorney Michael Cohen, Ocasio-Cortez calmly pursued a line of questioning that puts the Trump family and Trump organization directly in the House Oversight Committee’s line of fire.
When it was first reported that Ocasio-Cortez was joining the committee, I wrote previously that the congresswoman affectionately known as AOC could become a real force of nature if she did the work necessary to prepare for congressional hearings.
The Republican committee members used much of their time to launch transparent obstruction attempts — or to obsess over whether Cohen wished to write a book.
Too often, members on both side of the dais squander their limited time for questions with meandering preambles, declarations and grandstanding. During my five years working with the House Oversight Committee, I always found that the most effective members were the ones who were succinct, direct and surgical in their line of inquiry. The point of a question should be to ask something that advances the conversation, and through it, the investigation.
The Republican committee members used much of their time to launch transparent obstruction attempts — or to obsess over whether Cohen wished to write a book. While such rhetorical theatrics may impress Donald Trump, they will have little impact on the committee’s investigative track. By refusing to engage on substance, Republicans have, by default, conceded that many if not all of Cohen’s statements about Trump’s conduct are indeed factual.
In contrast, the Democrats seemed much more prepared. In particular, Ocasio-Cortez’s line of questioning should prove invaluable as the committee’s work continues. Because while Robert Mueller’s investigation may be winding down, Congress is just getting started, especially when it comes to the president’s financial integrity.
The freshman from the Bronx asked Cohen if “the president ever provide inflated assets to an insurance company.” Cohen’s one word response? “Yes.” She followed up by asking: “Who else knows that the president did this?” Cohen shared the names of three executives of the Trump organization: Allen Weisselberg, Ron Lieberman and Matthew Calamari. Then Ocasio-Cortez pointedly asked “where would the committee find more information on this; do you think we need to review his financial statements and tax returns to compare them?” Cohen’s response was again in the affirmative, adding that the information she apparently sought should be at the offices of the Trump organization.
The exchange was brief, almost understated. And yet, Ocasio-Cortez was able to elicit information from Cohen that will help the committee as it continues down a legitimate investigative path towards the president’s tax returns. The questions also opened the door to further inquiries into whether or not the president engaged in insurance fraud. The officials within the Trump organization named by Cohen are a new batch of breadcrumbs for Democrats to follow.
Contrast this longterm strategy with the tactics employed by Republicans on the panel. The conservative representatives used the bulk of their time, not to challenge the substance of Cohen’s testimony or the Democrats’ questions, but to insult and clumsily attack the witness.
Rep. Clay Higgins, R-La., used his time to ask Cohen about his documentary evidence, “where are those boxes that contain documents worthy of evidence and why have they not been turned over to investigative authorities?” Higgins went so far as to claim a warrant should be issued to seize the boxes. The problem is, the authorities seized these documents back when they initially arrested Cohen and have since been returned to him. In other words, Higgins was calling for the authorities to seize documents they had already seen and returned.
Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., used her time to try and get Cohen to pledge under oath that he would never pursue a book deal, political office, or a TV commentary gig. Never mind that the last two Republican chairmen of the committee, Trey Gowdy and Jason Chaffetz, have signed TV pundit deals with Fox News.
Ranking Member Jim Jordan, R-Ohio — arguably the most dramatic of the GOP representatives — repeatedly attacked Cohen as a remorseless liar, but couldn’t seem to bring himself to ask direct questions about the substance of the documentary evidence Cohen provided. (For his part, Cohen repeatedly acknowledged his past sins, telling Jordan that he had indeed lied, and was sorry for the dishonesty.)
And yet, fireworks aside, the main timeline of events went mostly unchallenged and therefore will be accepted as mostly true. And Democrats can now point to this hearing if Republicans complain about not having the opportunity to question the substance of the allegations against Trump.
Meanwhile, Ocasio-Cortez’s line of questioning will presumably give Democrats all the justification they need to legitimately expand their investigation into the president’s finances. The committee will doubtless want to conduct a forensic accounting investigation into Trump’s financial statements and returns. Republicans meanwhile, are free to keep trying to make sure Michael Cohen doesn’t get a book deal.