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.

Donald Trump
President Trump at a news conference after his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Feb. 28, 2019. (Photo: Evan Vucci/AP)

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
Former FBI Director Robert Mueller. (Photo: Charles Dharapak/AP)

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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