Wednesday is one of the first big hearings for the new Democratic-led House Oversight and Reform Committee. The sole witness, former Trump attorney Michael Cohen, is headed to jail for pleading guilty to lying to Congress.
Aside from the obvious question of why Democrats are wasting time on someone with a history of lying to them, there is a bigger question. How can they justify a hearing that is clearly outside the scope of the committee's broad jurisdiction?
No doubt the committee is authorized to investigate a full range of issues, but this hearing seems to be pure theater.
A Congressional oversight hearing must serve a legislative purpose. What legislation is Congress working on that Michael Cohen can shed light on?
Chairman Elijah Cummings, D-Md., justifies the hearing this way: “Congress has an obligation under the Constitution to conduct independent and robust oversight of the executive branch, and this hearing is one step in that process.”
Nobody would disagree with the committee’s jurisdiction to oversee the executive branch. The problem with this hearing, however, is that the witness was never part of the executive branch. Any testimony he provides is only relevant to events that took place prior to the election of the president.
Chairman Cummings’ press release says the hearing is to “address the president’s payoffs, financial disclosures, compliance with campaign finance laws, business practices, and other matters.” The Oversight Committee has agreed not to inquire about the Russia investigation, but only because that topic is reserved for the Intelligence Committee in a hearing the following day.
None of the stated reasons for the hearing have any relevance to Donald Trump as president, legislation, the executive branch, or any other government function. Michael Cohen was never a government employee.
The Oversight Committee has the broadest investigative scope of any Congressional committee. It can investigate “anything, anywhere.” But the Supreme Court has imposed clear boundaries on the committee and Congress.
In Watkins v. United States the Supreme Court ruled, “There is no general authority to expose the private affairs of individuals without justification in terms of the functions of the Congress...[n]or is the Congress a law enforcement or trial agency. ... [An] inquiry...must be related to, and in furtherance of, a legitimate task of the Congress.”
The hearing is an obvious attempt to embarrass the president and preemptively undercut any goodwill his peacemaking with North Korea might generate.
The title of the hearing is simply, “Hearing with Michael Cohen.” This hardly meets the standards written by Chief Justice Earl Warren in Watkins v. United States.
Furthermore, Michael Cohen still has a duty and obligation to maintain the attorney-client privilege with Mr. Trump. The privilege can only be waived by the client and is not transferable between the executive branch and the legislative branch. What exactly is Michael Cohen going to answer questions about? Is he going to explain to Congress how he lied to Congress?
It should be further noted that this hearing was scheduled after the White House had previously announced President Trump would be meeting in Vietnam with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that same day.
The fiasco that is sure to ensue as Congress hears from this witness seems to serve only one purpose: a public flogging of the president as he meets with Kim Jong Un about one of the most promising foreign policy initiatives of his presidency – ending a serious nuclear threat to the United States.
The hearing is an obvious attempt to embarrass the president and preemptively undercut any goodwill his peacemaking with North Korea might generate. One has to wonder why, of all the days available on the calendar, the Democrats selected this particular day, undermining the long-standing tradition of avoiding such proceedings while a president is overseas.
With all the problems and challenges facing our government, the choice of Michael Cohen as the first major hearing of the new majority on the House Oversight Committee does not instill confidence.
Questioning a disgraced witness on his way to jail – one who has already admitted lying to Congress – is not only inappropriate, it is a nakedly political overreach by a committee preoccupied with relitigating the 2016 election rather than improving public policy.