Trump, Cohen and the paradox of believing proven liars

 

Throughout Michael Cohen’s testimony this week before the House Oversight Committee, Republicans repeated what would seem to be a simple rule of human nature: Never trust a person who has been proven to be a liar.

“I want everyone in this room to think about this, the first announced witness for the 116th Congress is a guy who is going to prison in two months for lying to Congress,” Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, said in his opening remarks.

But as more Republicans on the committee followed Jordan’s lead, that strategy quickly hit a wall.

“You’re a pathological liar. You don’t know truth from falsehood,” Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz, scolded Cohen, who then swiftly turned the tables on his interrogators.

“Sir, I’m sorry, are you referring to me or the president?” Cohen asked with a boyish grin.

Therein lies a paradox for the Republican Party. They distrust the fixer who lied to protect the president, but trust the president who himself has been shown to have difficulties telling the truth.

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Michael Cohen testifies before House
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Michael Cohen testifies before House
Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump's former personal lawyer, arrives to testify before the House Oversight and Reform Committee on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Michael Cohen, US President Donald Trump's former personal attorney, is sworn in to testify before the House Oversight and Reform Committee in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on February 27, 2019. (Photo by Jim WATSON / AFP) (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Michael Cohen, US President Donald Trump's former personal attorney, testifies before the House Oversight and Reform Committee in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on February 27, 2019. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN / AFP) (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Michael Cohen, former personal lawyer to U.S. President Donald Trump, listens during a House Oversight Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019. Cohen plans to tell a congressional committee about alleged misdeeds by his former boss, claiming that Trump knew during the 2016 presidential election that his ally Roger Stone was talking to Julian Assange of WikiLeaks about a release of hacked Democratic National Committee emails. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat from New York, listens during a House Oversight Committee hearing with Michael Cohen, former personal lawyer to U.S. President Donald Trump, not pictured, in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019. Cohen plans to tell a congressional committee about alleged misdeeds by his former boss, claiming that Trump knew during the 2016 presidential election that his ally Roger Stone was talking to Julian Assange of WikiLeaks about a release of hacked Democratic National Committee emails. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Representative Jim Jordan, a Republican from Ohio and ranking member of the House Oversight Committee, pauses while speaking during a hearing with Michael Cohen, former personal lawyer to U.S. President Donald Trump, not pictured, in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019. Cohen plans to tell a congressional committee about alleged misdeeds by his former boss, claiming that Trump knew during the 2016 presidential election that his ally Roger Stone was talking to Julian Assange of WikiLeaks about a release of hacked Democratic National Committee emails. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Michael Cohen, US President Donald Trump's former personal attorney, testifies before the House Oversight and Reform Committee in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on February 27, 2019. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN / AFP) (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez(D-NY) listens as Michael Cohen, attorney for President Trump, testifies before the House Oversight and Reform Committee in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on February 27, 2019. (Photo by Jim WATSON / AFP) (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Michael Cohen, former personal lawyer to U.S. President Donald Trump, holds document during a House Oversight Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019. Cohen brought documents to Wednesday's congressional hearing to back up his case that his former boss is a 'con man' and 'a cheat.' Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 27: A copy of a check paid to Michael Cohen by President Trump is displayed as Michael Cohen, former attorney and fixer for President Donald Trump testifies before the House Oversight Committee on Capitol Hill February 27, 2019 in Washington, DC. Last year Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison and ordered to pay a $50,000 fine for tax evasion, making false statements to a financial institution, unlawful excessive campaign contributions and lying to Congress as part of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential elections. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 27: Chairman Elijah Cummings, D-Md., is seen during a House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing in Rayburn Building featuring testimony by Michael Cohen, former attorney for President Donald Trump, on Russian interference in the 2016 election on Wednesday, February 27, 2019. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 27: Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., left, and ranking member Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, are seen during a House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing in Rayburn Building featuring testimony by Michael Cohen, former attorney for President Donald Trump, on Russian interference in the 2016 election on Wednesday, February 27, 2019. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Michael Cohen, US President Donald Trump's former personal attorney, testifies before the House Oversight and Reform Committee in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on February 27, 2019. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN / AFP) (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 27: Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., is seen during a House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing in Rayburn Building featuring testimony by Michael Cohen, former attorney for President Donald Trump, on Russian interference in the 2016 election on Wednesday, February 27, 2019. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 27: From left, Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., and Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., are seen during a House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing in Rayburn Building featuring testimony by Michael Cohen, former attorney for President Donald Trump, on Russian interference in the 2016 election on Wednesday, February 27, 2019. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Michael Cohen, US President Donald Trump's former personal attorney is seen on the tv at the Fox News Headquarters in the Newscorp Building on 6th Avenue in New York February 27, 2019 as the Ticker Tap flashes headlines while he testifies before the House Oversight and Reform Committee in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC (Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY / AFP) (Photo credit should read TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)
Michael Cohen, former personal lawyer to U.S. President Donald Trump, speaks during a House Oversight Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019. Cohen brought documents to Wednesday's congressional hearing to back up his case that his former boss is a 'con man' and 'a cheat.' Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 27: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) listens to testimony by Michael Cohen, former attorney and fixer for President Donald Trump, before the House Oversight Committee on Capitol Hill February 27, 2019 in Washington, DC. Last year Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison and ordered to pay a $50,000 fine for tax evasion, making false statements to a financial institution, unlawful excessive campaign contributions and lying to Congress as part of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential elections. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
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By the Washington Post’s count, as of Feb. 17, Trump has made 8,718 “false or misleading claims” while in office. One of the more glaring untruths was revealed by the New York Times on Thursday, showing that Trump had apparently misled the paper when asked directly whether he had intervened in any way to secure a top-level security clearance for his son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner.

“I was never involved in the security,” Trump told the paper just weeks ago when asked about his involvement.

That claim was laid bare after the Times learned about two contemporaneous memos written last May. One written by Trump’s former chief of staff, retired Gen. John Kelly, and the other by former White House counsel Don McGahn, detailed how Trump had personally ordered that Kushner be granted the security clearance despite objections by the CIA and others in government.

Whether it be Trump’s changing explanation for a meeting between members of his presidential campaign — including Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort and his son, Don Jr.  — and a Russian lawyer, or his insistence to reporters on Air Force One that he never knew that Cohen had paid hush money to Daniels (checks presented this week by his former lawyer for the repayment of a debt undercut that notion), the president’s own claims would seem to merit more than a touch of skepticism.

But trust, it turns out, is a partisan sport. And the Democrats were caught in their own truth dilemma this week by choosing to believe that Cohen, who begins a three-year prison term in May, in part for lying to Congress, was finally coming clean when speaking ill of Trump.

“I believe he told the truth,” committee chairman Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., told reporters at the conclusion of Cohen’s marathon grilling.

Robert Mueller

While asking liars to tell the truth carries self-evident risks, in the matter of Robert Mueller’s investigation of the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, it would seem to be the only option. Mind you, for a skilled prosecutor, the truth is out there, and in this case it involves talking to a whole lot of liars to find it.

Manafort, for instance, was convicted of eight felonies, including multiple counts of tax and bank fraud. In addition, Robert Mueller laid out his case that Manafort breached his cooperation deal by lying about his interactions with Konstantin Kilimnik, a Ukrainian-Russian political consultant.

Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

George Papadopoulos, a former Trump campaign adviser, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about searching in the 2016 presidential election for Russian “dirt” on Hillary Clinton that could aid Trump.

Roger Stone, a longtime Trump adviser, has been indicted by Mueller’s office on one count of obstruction, one count of witness tampering and five counts of making false statements.

That Trump has surrounded himself with this cast of characters may help explain why the president spends so much time decrying “fake news.” If no one can be trusted to tell the truth, after all, then why bother worrying about the coverage of Cohen’s testimony, the Mueller investigation or whether Trump intervened on behalf of his son-in-law obtaining a security clearance?

Though this week’s events on Capitol Hill confirmed that we may never solve what philosophers call the liar paradox, we can at least be sure that if it applies to one liar, it should apply to all.

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