Michael Cohen’s riveting testimony last week opened Act II of the three-act immorality play that is the Trump administration. Nearly four months after the country handed Democrats control of the House of Representatives, and with it the power to set the House agenda and compel testimony and documents from Trumpland, we had our first glimpse of what it looks like when checks and balances operate properly.
Act I was an orgy of norm destruction enabled by congressional Republicans boxed in politically by their embrace of an outlaw administration, where congress and the president operated like conjoined institutions fused together by shared political needs rather than constitutionally-mandated separate institutions at loggerheads over their distinct prerogatives.
Act III, when it comes, will be a denouement where conflict is certain and accountability is possible. It will end either in renewal or chaos, the likelihood of either having been determined by the course of Act II.
Act II is about discovery. It is about presenting the country with a clear and comprehensive narrative built around testimony and facts uncovered by multiple House committees performing their constitutionally mandated oversight function. The narrative it will reveal is powerful and simple: Donald Trump is the leader of a crime family. He is a lawless crime boss who tramples on the interests of the country to enrich himself.
This narrative is broader than the Mueller probe’s investigation into collusion and conspiracy with America’s adversaries and can be built on a broad range of crimes rather than a single, exacting standard of guilt. It will be backed by tons of evidence, including testimony like Cohen’s that will grip the country in the coming months. It will tie together a confusing array of disparate allegations of corruption into a simple and powerful argument about rampant illegality and abuse of power. Trump had the public narrative to himself in Act I (“no collusion!”), with Democrats out of power and his primary nemesis conducting a legal inquiry under a media blackout. He will have to yell louder in Act II to be heard over the sound of televised hearings.
There is an odd suspension-of-reality quality to the early moments of Act II. Everyone is pretending not to see what is in front of their eyes. Democrats are pretending that tangible evidence of felonious activity does not yet rise to the level of impeachment. Republicans are pretending that the alternate universe they constructed for themselves over the past two years is more truthful than facts.
Both sides are motivated by politics. House Democrats could impeach Trump today if they wanted to, but they recognize that it would lead to acquittal in the Republican Senate and allow Trump to claim exoneration while waving a red flag in front of his supporters in advance of the 2020 campaign. That’s why they can be presented with Watergate-caliber smoking gun evidence of criminal intent and respond with a wait-and-see attitude. Democrats are calculating that a barrage of hearings will allow their message to break through the media fog of the past two years and lead that small but persuadable portion of the public to view Donald Trump as a mob boss. The more deeply their narrative takes hold, the more pressure Republicans will face in an impeachment trial, where it will take twenty defections to convict. Nothing close to that number is imaginable as Act II begins.
But Republicans face reality-bending challenges of their own. They had no response to Cohen’s litany of charges against his former boss other than to repeatedly call him a liar – a charge Cohen willingly embraced. There were no attempts to refute his testimony and no expressions of concern for the gravity of his allegations. Instead, Republicans felt content to retreat to the bunker of their collective imaginations, where the truth is what they say it is. It was an appeal to the one-third or so of the country living on Republican Island, where the smoke from over seventeen separate investigations is just a smokescreen for so many witch hunts.
Democrats believe it will become exponentially harder for Republicans to hide from the real world as their Act II narrative takes hold and grows. They recognize that the weight of the evidence they are introducing will eventually force them to act, and they are hoping to exert maximum pressure on Republicans before they do. Democrats may properly call what they are doing oversight, but they are preparing for the likelihood that the opening scene of Act III will be a senate trial.