Michael Cohen’s verbal somersault

This article originally appeared in The Conversation on February 27, 2019.The Conversation

Michael Cohen, who admits to lying, also says he’s not a liar.

Can we separate what someone does from who they are? Cohen thinks we should and it would help us to understand both him and Trump better.

Cohen, Donald Trump’s former personal attorney and fixer, testified before Congress about his former client Wednesday.

Cohen claimed that he wanted “to correct the record” about his previous testimony. Correcting the record now, Cohen hoped, would prove to the nation that lying was what Cohen did, but not who he is.

“I have lied, but I am not a liar,” said Cohen. “I have done bad things, but I am not a bad man,” he assured Congress.

At issue in Cohen’s testimony, therefore, were the points of stasis, a Greek term used here to mean “points of argument.” Those stases centered on fact and quality: What happened and how should we judge it?

As a scholar and teacher of rhetoric and argumentation who is finishing a book about Trump’s presidential campaign, I paid close attention to how Cohen explained his actions on Trump’s behalf to Congress.

Cohen relied on the argumentative strategy of dissociation — it’s not this, it’s that — to carefully separate his actions from his essence and Trump’s actions from Trump’s essence.

Exonerate Cohen, implicate Trump

According to this strategy a person who lies is not necessarily a liar; a person who does bad things is not necessarily a bad person.

The strategy invites audiences to separate the elements of an apparent unity — the person who does the thing is the thing — so that each can be judged separately. By doing this, Cohen attempted to exonerate himself and implicate Trump in several fraudulent schemes and attempted to define Trump’s essence as a “racist, a con man, and a cheat.”

Trump called Cohen a liar when he tweeted — and then retweeted while Cohen was testifying — that Cohen was disbarred for “lying and fraud” and that he lied again in his testimony. Cohen is a liar who lied, it is his essence, claimed Trump.

Likewise, Republican lawmakers who questioned him rejected Cohen’s attempt to dissociate actions from essence.

“If you’ve lied, then you are a liar,” Georgia Rep. Jody Hice told Cohen, in one of the more heated exchanges of the testimony.

Cohen’s testimony wasn’t just about his own essence, it was also about Trump’s essence.

“Mr. Trump is an enigma,” testified Cohen. “He is complicated, as am I. He has both good and bad, as do we all.”

Cohen explained to Congress that Trump’s complicated nature, like his own, could best be understood by separating Trump’s actions from his essence.

According to Cohen, Trump’s actions made him appear to be something that he is not. Like the Trump brand’s signature gilding, what was manifest on the outside was not what was on the inside. Trump’s exterior may glitter with gold, but according to Cohen, Trump does not have a heart of gold.

“The bad far outweighs the good,” said Cohen. Trump “is capable of behaving kindly, but he is not kind. He is capable of committing acts of generosity, but he is not generous. He is capable of being loyal, but he is fundamentally disloyal.”

Between action and essence

A central issue of Cohen’s testimony was about the distinction between appearance and reality, between his and Trump’s actions and their respective essences.

Cohen has invited the nation to render two separate judgments about himself and about Trump. The nation ought to render opposite judgments, argued Cohen, but both cases ought to be decided based upon a person’s essential character.

To make sense of Cohen’s testimony, the fundamental question is this: How should the actions of people like Trump and Cohen be judged?

Is a person a liar because they lie? Is a person kind because they appear to be kind? Should we dissociate the quality of the person from their actions? The fate of the nation may hang on its citizens’ ability to judge correctly.

“Mr. Cohen, you call Mr. Trump a cheat,” Kentucky Rep. James Comer said to Cohen during the testimony.

“What would you call yourself?” Comer asked.

Cohen answered: “A fool.”

Was Cohen a fool — or did he merely act foolishly?

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