He’s had good weeks and bad. But the stretch where February 2019 morphed into March was clearly the worst of times for Donald Trump’s presidency.
As he flew off to Vietnam for his second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jung Un, the challenges to his reputation and power that he faces at home were on vivid display on Capitol Hill.
It was the middle of the night in Hanoi when Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal lawyer, testified before Congress about the “conman” he once served with blind loyalty.
His words were blunt. In his opening statement, he told the House Judiciary Committee:
“I know what Mr. Trump is. He is a racist. He is a conman. He is a cheat.”
And that was just the beginning. Cohen detailed how he threatened people on Trump’s behalf and organized payments to women during the 2016 presidential campaign to keep them quiet about past affairs with the Republican candidate. He talked about Trump Organization hopes for business deals with Russia, and indicated he had some knowledge about the hacking of Democratic Party emails that were later released online by WikiLeaks.
Cohen is not clean. He pled guilty to lying to Congress in earlier testimony and has been sentenced to 3-years in federal prison. But this time, he made clear he had nothing to lose by telling the truth.
It came as no surprise to anyone that the 7-hour hearing was tense and grueling. Republicans on the panel tore into Cohen’s credibility, though they said little about the accusations he raised. At the end of his public testimony, Cohen urged them to think carefully before blindly standing by Donald Trump:
“To those who support the president and his rhetoric as I once did, I pray the country doesn’t make the same mistakes that I have made or pay the heavy price that my family and I are paying,” he said.
It was pretty emotional stuff and public interest was intense. This was high political drama, with Donald J. Trump described by the lead actor as a villain.
Meanwhile, things weren’t going much better for the president in Hanoi. His summit with Kim Jung Un was cut short, a planned signing ceremony was cancelled, and Trump walked away from the talks empty-handed.
Before heading home, he told reporters that the North Koreans wanted a complete lifting of sanctions before they would agree to denuclearize – a claim North Korea’s foreign minister later rejected.
But Trump also made clear he was not ready to give up on Kim.
He said he believes Kim Jong Un’s claim that he knew nothing about the harsh treatment of Otto Warmbier – an American college student who died shortly after returning home from move than a year of captivity in North Korea.
“Those prisons are tough,” Trump said, adding “he tells me he didn’t know about it and I take him at his word.”
Americans who have had dealings with North Korea over the years were aghast.
The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker put it best in this dispatch from Hanoi:
“Trump took Vladimir Putin at his word on Russian election interference. He took MBS at his word over the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi. And today in Hanoi he took Kim Jung Un at his word over the death of Otto Warmbier.”
Trump later said his words were “misinterpreted.” The Warmbier family wasn’t buying it and issued a statement indirectly criticizing the president.
“We have been respectful during this summit process. Now we must speak out. Kim and his evil regime are responsible for the death of our son Otto,” they wrote. “Kim and his evil regime are responsible for unimaginable cruelty and inhumanity. No excuses or lavish raise can change that.”
All this happened within a 36-hour period — with television newscasts in the U.S. shifting to split screen coverage of events half a world apart.
Trump, as if to assign blame for his own performance at the summit with Kim Jung Un tweeted:
“For the Democrats to interview in an open hearing a convicted liar and fraudster, at the same time as the very important Nuclear Summit with North Korea, is perhaps a new low in American politics and may have contributed to the ‘walk.’ Never done when a president is overseas. Shame!”
Let’s get this straight. President Trump is saying Cohen’s testimony caused the North Koreans to refuse to denuclearize? Really?
The fact is the North Koreans have other things on their mind and Trump basically either misread their intentions or just plain overpromised results. That’s not surprising for a man who barely listens to the intelligence community and relies on his own “instincts” rather than the knowledge of experts.
And what did the president do to ground himself and restore his “equilibrium” after such a difficult stretch at home and abroad? He gave a two hour speech to his core conservative followers— a long, extemporaneous diatribe laced with profanity and lies.
“I am totally off-script right now,” he told the Conservative Political Action Conference, “and this is how I got elected — by being off-script. And if we don’ go off-script, our country’s in big trouble folks. Because we have to get it back.”
And there you have it. The Trump philosophy in a nutshell. Don’t think before you speak… always be ready to go on the attack… and never forget, chaos rules.