When do we start the clock on this momentous day on separate fronts at opposite ends of the globe? About 6:30 p.m., Vietnam time, President Trump shook hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to a cacophony of clicking digital cameras before their long-shot denuclearization summit meeting. That’s 6:30 a.m. Washington time. Hours earlier, Michael Cohen and his attorneys put final touches on the opening statement he’d make to the House Oversight Committee. Cohen’s remarks characterizing his former boss as “a racist, conman and a cheat” were delivered about 10:30 a.m. in Washington, 10:30 p.m. in Hanoi as Trump wrapped up his first day of the summit. Trump tweeted in response: “Michael Cohen was one of many lawyers who represented me (unfortunately). . . . He was just disbarred . . . for lying & fraud. . . . He is lying in order to reduce his prison time. Using Crooked’s lawyer!” (“Crooked” refers to Hillary Clinton and her lawyer, now one of Cohen’s, Lanny Davis.)
It’s useless to argue about Cohen’s credibility. Trump supporters and detractors occupy different planets. I can tell, and so could you, by watching commentary on cable news networks of opposing political views. In Fox world, Cohen, once convicted of lying, is ineligible as a witness. (Tell that to any cop investigating a crime or prosecutor trying a defendant. May as well abandon jurisprudence.) On MSNBC, Trump is all but impeached or indicted—though a Justice Department memo says presidents are non indictable. The live feed of the hearings was more illuminative. Only one Republican bothered to ask a substantive question. Rep. Justin Amash asked Cohen if Trump ordered him to lie about contacts with Russia. Cohen responded that Trump never directed him to lie. But he got the message “in code.”
Other Republicans, notably Jim Jordan, ranking committee Republican—he’d be chairman if Democrats hadn’t won control of the House in the midterms—and Mark Meadows, concentrated on theatrical stunts such as “proving” Trump couldn’t be racist because he hired Lynne Patton to a Department of Housing and Urban Development post. With no chance to speak for herself—the majority would block her as a witness—Patton was trotted out as a “prop,” as newly elected Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib protested in her turn at questioning. Meadows cried foul as he presumed being labeled a racist. Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings intervened, avoiding a crisis that might have crashed the hearing. Both sides made nice. Jordan’s contribution was to post an optic declaiming Cohen as “Liar Liar Pants on Fire” hereafter disqualified from human discourse. Very mature.
Democrats also were guilty of speechifying political points in their “questions,” although rookie Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez kept on investigative point by asking if Trump had committed bank and insurance frauds and where the committee could find supporting evidence and witnesses.
Baltimorean Cummings, reminding me of a passionate disciple of the affable Sen. Sam Ervin of Watergate fame, closed the hearing with an emotional appeal on behalf of democracy: “We are better than this!”
Hopefully, we are.
On the other side of the world, the president walked away from negotiations with Kim, who reportedly demanded a full pullback on sanctions while offering to decommission one nuclear site. Listening to his intelligence experts for a change, Trump confronted Kim with evidence of more North Korean nuke sites. Bad deal rightly rejected.
In a weird twist, North Koreans called a press conference (they have no domestic press) 24 hours into Trump’s long strange day, claiming they only sought partial relief from sanctions. But Trump stepped on his rare display of presidential behavior. He, not Kim, banned American reporters from the summit dinner because an AP reporter asked a question about Cohen. Then, in his closing press conference, Trump gave murderous dictator Kim dispensation on the death of American student Otto Warmbier. Arrested for pilfering a poster, Warmbier was imprisoned and much later released, comatose and near inevitable death.
Trump claims he believes Kim’s assurance that he knew nothing of this atrocity. Just like he accepted Vladimir Putin’s word on Russian interference in the 2016 election and Saudi prince Mohammed bin Salman’s claim of innocence in the savage murder of a Washington Post journalist.
One step forward, two steps back, Mr. President. For Trump, that’s 24-hour “progress.”
Stephen Parks, now living in Easton, is a retired journalist who worked for Newsday on Long Island and The Sun in Baltimore among other newspapers.