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'We’re better than this': lessons from the Michael Cohen hearing 

Very little was surprising about Michael Cohen’s testimony before the House Oversight Committee last week – not even the childish “Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire” poster bearing Cohen’s photograph, which a Republican committee member had set up in the hearing room. We already knew we’d sunk that low.

And yet that says a lot. Many of us have become so used to this stuff that nothing the president says or does – nothing his enablers and protectors say or do – surprises us. We’ve become dangerously jaded.

On the PBS Newshour, New York Times columnist David Brooks referred to the hearing as “a moral occasion.” And Brooks lit into committee Republicans for caring less about what the president had done than in using the hearing to “rip the skin off of Michael Cohen.”

“What struck me,” Brooks said, “is how moral corrosion happens, that you decide that you’re going to ignore Trump, and then to do that you have to morally distance yourself from him. And then you have to morally distance yourself from him every day. And eventually you just get numbed to everything. And so Jim Jordan and other people on the committee were saying, ‘Oh, we all knew this’ – like it’s all unremarkable. That’s how moral corrosion happens.”

It was good, then, and maybe hopeful, that the Oversight Committee’s chair, Maryland Representative Elijah Cummings, used his eloquent closing statement to remind the country of what its government is supposed to be like. Printed words don’t do justice to Cummings’ statement; you need Cummings’ voice and rhythm and emphasis. But both the print and the televised versions serve as a warning that in our civic behavior, we’re risking a lot right now.

Cummings couldn’t have been any less surprised than the rest of us at Michael Cohen’s testimony. And yet the hearing had troubled Cummings. “You know, I’ve sat here, and I’ve listened to all this, and it’s very painful,” he said. “It’s very painful. “

“We are better than this,” he said. “We really are. As a country, we are so much better than this.”

At his one meeting with the president, Cumming said, he told Trump: “The greatest gift that you and I, Mr. President, can give to our children, is making sure we give them a democracy that is intact. A democracy better than the one we came upon.”

“I’m hoping,” he said to Cohen, “that the things you said today will help us again to get back there.”

The Washington Post, Cummings noted, has counted “at least 8,718” false or misleading statements by Donald Trump. “That’s stunning,” he said. “That’s not what we teach our children. I don’t teach mine that.”

The president, Cummings said, has called Cohen a “rat.” “We’re better than that,” Cummings said. “We really are. And I’m hoping that all of us can get back to this democracy that we want, and that we should be passing on to our children so they can do better than what we did.”

“When we’re dancing with the angels,” Cummings said, “the question will be asked: In 2019, what did we do to make sure we kept our democracy intact? Did we stand on the sidelines and say nothing?”

It was a rare, impassioned civic lesson, from a politician who believes the country can live up to its promise, who seems convinced that “we’re so much better than this.”

I’m no longer sure we are. But I hope Elijah Cummings is right.

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