There is No Redemption for Michael Cohen
Timothy Denevi Takes a Trip to the Washington Underworld
It was toward the end of a very long day of Michael Cohen’s testimony to the House Oversight Committee—a day that had opened with this statement by Cohen regarding the current president of the United States: “He is a racist. He is a con man. And he is a cheat”—when, from my own vantage point in the hallway beyond, I began to feel as if the destination I’d spent the afternoon hoping to enter, the public gallery of room in which this hearing was taking place, had instead begun to resemble somewhere else entirely…
This was in the Rayburn Office Building, another cold February Wednesday in slate-gray Washington. I was standing against the wall of the wide marbled second-floor hallway; along with dozens of others I’d been in line for the visitor’s entrance. Across from us, overflow photographers scrolled through their phones. House staffers walked by in groups. The sheer number of individuals hovering here seemed to reach into the many hundreds, and everywhere I looked I saw people idling in their proximity to the human drama unfolding just beyond our sight.
I’d been waiting in this line nearly half the day, but it refused to move. By now I’d made it to the front. As with nearly everyone else I was watching a broadcast of the event on my phone. The people ahead of me, a couple in their thirties dressed as if for church, had been here since 7am. But no one from our section had passed into the room beyond for many hours now. Instead, there was this: every so often the doors to the hearing would swing open, and as a photographer or staffer passed by we were granted a fleeting glimpse of the spectacle beyond, of the lawmakers sitting in blue tiers, of their aids arranged against the opposite wall.
And it was during one of these moments that afternoon, as a beefy Capitol police officer pulled at the handle and our view opened on the cream-and-blue backdrop, that I suddenly found myself recalling a very specific passage out of a book I hadn’t really read in years. It was from The Aeneid, the scene where the eponymous hero of Virgil’s epic poem makes his way through the many levels of the underworld only to arrive at the most mysterious destination of all: a valley in which countless human souls are fated to gather and wait for the chance of being allowed to pass, at some point in the far-distant future, back into the world they’d once so painfully departed—on the condition that they forget everything they’ve ever known and experienced. “They are spirits,” Virgil writes, “owed a second body by destiny.”
In his opening statement Michael Cohen had said, “Today, I get to decide the example I set for my children and how I attempt to change how history will remember me.” Regarding his previous misdeeds, which included misleading the very lawmakers he now found himself speaking in front of again, he explained, “I have lied, but I am not a liar. I have done bad things, but I am not a bad man.” In a heated exchange he described himself as a “fool.” Throughout the day he offered evidence, supported by documents and anecdotal narratives, of the president’s crimes. At times, despite his midlevel mob-boss accent, he appeared surprisingly adept. After all, he’d spent more time than most on the side of the people he now found himself trying to counter. You could say there was even a bit of bravery to it; this was a man who’d been repeatedly threatened by the leader of the free world. Who, the day before, had been attacked by Congressman Matt Gaetz of Florida in a Twitter post that amounted to blackmail.You shouldn’t mourn for Michael Cohen (besides, from the sad-eyed look that never seems to leave his face it’s pretty clear he’s already got that angle covered).
Still, it was hard to escape the notion that Cohen was performing his sadness in order to elicit our empathy: a ploy. And as I waited in the hallway I couldn’t help but imagine what it might’ve been like if the star of the show would’ve arrived in this chamber and offered, instead, to the members of the committee both hostile and sympathetic, a different admission:
Listen, he might have said. I am ruined. No amount of contrition will diminish what I’ve done. I’ve taken the enormous advantages in my favor—from education to social standing to my proximity to power—and acted repeatedly out of a desire for wealth, out of selfishness, out of greed, relying on the inherent nature of these advantages to shield me.
As such: Don’t ask whether or not I’m telling the truth. You should not spend your time attacking my credibility, my character. You should know, instead, that all of my previous behavior has made my future effort—no matter how selfless—irrelevant: I am inconsequential because of the harm I’ve wrought, and the only reason I’m speaking to you, now, is to offer an example of how to avoid destroying yourselves in service of someone who is even more morally and spiritually bankrupt than this piece of human garbage before you. Hey. I’m talking to you, Representative Jim Jordan. I’m talking to you, Representative Mike Meadows. You, Matt Gaetz. I’m addressing everyone who continues to defend Donald Trump’s actions. Listen: the only outcome you can possibly expect is the seat I’m currently occupying. And in your path here you will lose everything. History will find you complicit. And rightly so: In the end you will only be remembered for your cowardice if you’re remembered at all.
Still: keep in mind that you, unlike me, have time to untether yourself from the most unabashedly crooked American leader in our nation’s history. If anything, use me as an example of how not to bury yourself in the unmarked grave of shame that’s bound to arrive much earlier than any of you care to think…
Or to put it another way: that afternoon I found myself marveling at the fact that Cohen just spent an entire day on national television trying not to appear dead. And at that he’d failed spectacularly. In the end no amount of goodwill can change what he’s become. A man who wails is not a dancing bear. A cow can’t harvest corn. And the faults in his heart will always be his alone… though let it at least be said that the participation in this drama of a certain Donald John Trump should never be discounted.
Toward the end of my time in line, with that passage from The Aeneid sticking in my thoughts like the bright bone of a dream—as Cohen shrugged with the sadness he’d been blanketing himself in from the start—the corridor of the Rayburn Office Building began flashing.
Someone was walking by, followed by photographers. It was the lawmaker from Florida, Matt Gaetz, who the day before had issued that astonishing threat to Cohen on Twitter. He was strutting, smirking; at his lapel he wore an enormous copper-colored pin. From behind me I heard someone say that Gaetz had done the same thing before the hearing started (he wasn’t a member of the Oversight Committee and thus wasn’t allowed to participate himself). He kept casting his glance from one wall of the corridor to the other, angling for the cameras that captured his presence here without fail.
Then when he reached the end of the corridor he turned around; as if in a nightmare he approached again, for a second bout of publicity, and suddenly I felt myself overcome with a very familiar anger: a desire to watch Gaetz suffer the same sort of downfall that the object of his Twitter threat had recently experienced. I wanted him exposed. Now. The only question: who was willing to do it? Who was willing to shout and gesticulate here, now, to shame him in the way he deserved? Who among us was brave enough to make a scene—and why not me?
And this was when I gave up and walked away, toward the exit. I left my place in line. I never made it into the hearing room beyond. I stepped out of the Rayburn Building and leaned into the cold Potomac wind. I was trying to set aside that anger, which I’ve felt so often these past two years—the weight of its personal and cultural disfigurement. I told myself what I always do in these situations: the response these horrible people elicit in us is their weapon; it’s through our desire to turn their tactics of silencing and delegitimizing back on them that we hasten our own defeat, holding in our hands the madness they’ve tricked us into taking.
I wish I could tell you I felt better, leaving the spectacle of an admittedly historic day. But I wish a lot of things. For example, I wish I had the power to simply take Virgil at his word, to believe we’re not just fated for second chances—for a new body, a new life, for the balm only forgetfulness can promise—but that, after a penitence of nearly eternal waiting, we’re somehow owed them.
The opposite, I suspect, is true: the corridor doesn’t extend endlessly outward after death so much as lead toward it, with frightening banality, in the simple shape of our lives. “What’s the point of forgetting if it’s followed by dying?” Claudia Rankine writes (by way of Joseph Brodsky).
Of course you shouldn’t mourn for Michael Cohen (besides, from the sad-eyed look that never seems to leave his face it’s pretty clear he’s already got that angle covered). Instead, in your own sense of certitude, in your desire to wield whatever you’re sure is necessary to enact the justice this world continues to lack, ask yourself this: what will you do when you’ve finally realized that this whole time you’ve been, along with the people you despise the most, wrong? Remember: if you’re asking for a second chance it just means you’ve already been given far more than the rest of us can count.