There is very little that was not shocking about Michael Cohen’s testimony before the House Oversight Committee.
The hearing was bombshells, start to finish: from Cohen’s assertion that President Donald Trump referred to his campaign as the “greatest infomercial in political history,” to his testimony that multiple Trump children were apparently involved in the Moscow tower deal, to the allegation that American Media chief executive David Pecker paid $15,000 to kill a story about a Trump “love child” who didn’t even exist.
But perhaps the most unexpected of all was the transformation of Cohen himself, from proud New York “fixer” to penitent. Trump’s former right-hand man seemed genuinely contrite.
Most of our public figures would rather go down in flames than admit wrongdoing or show real shame. Racist Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, still thinks that he’s done nothing wrong, and blackface-wearing Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, can’t bear to step down. We’re still waiting for Bill Clinton to apologize to Monica Lewinsky, and our current president, Cohen’s former employer, could be more accurately described as the brazener in chief.
Now, looking at jail time, Cohen has broken away from the crowd. “All I want to do is get my life back, protect my wife and children, and go home,” he testified at one point, visibly chastened. He did bad things, he fully understands the consequences, and — unusually — he wants everyone else to understand, too.
Not that Cohen has changed completely: Trump’s former “attack dog” was still willing to fight throughout his hours of testimony, sparring with his questioners in tit-for-tat exchanges about his motivations, truthfulness, finances and credibility.
But even in his combative moments he evinced the attitude of a man changed. As Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, thundered on about how he believed Cohen’s repentance was a facade, Cohen, visibly offended, shot back: “Shame on you, Mr. Jordan. … I take responsibility for my mistakes. I am remorseful.”
In many cases, Cohen’s self-awareness seemed to leave questioners at a loss for words, especially the congressional Republicans who were intent on discrediting him.
“You called the president a cheat,” Rep. James Comer, R-Kentucky, asked at one point. “What would you call yourself?” “A fool,” Cohen replied.
They can’t hurt you if there’s nothing left to lose.
At one point, Cohen even tried to lend some of his newfound moral clarity to the Trump-defending lawmakers who seemed determined to tear him down. He delivered a pointed accusation that we can only hope will leave a mark: “I’m responsible for your silliness, because I did the same thing you’re doing now. … I protected Mr. Trump for 10 years.”
Of course, there are some caveats to this redemptive arc.
It’s impossible to know what is really in Cohen’s heart. He has lied before (as Republicans told us again, and again, and again), and he could be lying now. And when detractors accused him of using his public about-face to win book or film deals, Cohen wouldn’t promise to donate future publicity earnings to charity. (Although, to be fair, one can understand how he might reasonably have need of them — “I don’t expect I’m going to have a source of income when I’m in federal penitentiary,” Cohen admitted early on.)
Despite these misgivings, it still feels remarkable in this day and age to witness what looks like true public contrition. As the indictments continue to pile up, let’s hope it becomes a trend.
Christine Emba is an opinion columnist and editor for The Washington Post.