Like many Americans, I spent (too much) time watching Michael Cohen’s testimony before the House Oversight Committee. My only defense: I am fascinated that history continues to unfold in real time before my very eyes. I’m not sure if I should just accept that we are in a unique moment and keep watching, or get back to the myriad other things I have to do.
This post is not about the Trump administration, the Special Counsel or Michael Cohen’s credibility as a witness; but rather, it is a reflection upon a statement he made early in his opening remarks:
“I am ashamed of my weakness and misplaced loyalty – of the things I did for Mr. Trump in an effort to protect and promote him. I am ashamed that I chose to take part in concealing Mr. Trump’s illicit acts rather than listening to my own conscience.
“I have always tried to live a life of loyalty, friendship, generosity, and compassion – qualities my parents ingrained in my siblings and me since childhood. My father survived the Holocaust thanks to the compassion and selfless acts of others. He was helped by many who put themselves in harm’s way to do what they knew was right. That is why my first instinct has always been to help those in need…
“It is painful to admit that I was motivated by ambition at times. It is even more painful to admit that many times I ignored my conscience and acted loyal to a man when I should not have. Sitting here today, it seems unbelievable that I was so mesmerized by Donald Trump that I was willing to do things for him that I knew were absolutely wrong.”
I can relate to these words. While my parents are not holocaust survivors, their selfless example provided the bedrock of my ethical system. Lying is anathema to me. Michael Cohen’s testimony prompted me to ask hard questions. How can I reconcile his upbringing with his repeated lying? And I have had to ask myself: have I ever been so intoxicated by power or vengeance or even righteous indignation that I would lie? What would prompt me to do this?
I didn’t have to search my memory for long to recall an incident that happened several years ago, when I was president and CEO of my own media company. I wrote about the incident in my recent book, Beyond the Comma.
“One of our clients was a local bank and we were producing some promotional material for them. We were asked to do a report that would help them improve their business and we had become aware of some discriminatory practices that were occurring in the way bank personnel treated people of color. I knew of one instance in particular (though I was convinced there were more). I was incensed by this injustice and we mentioned it in our report—it was, frankly, a single line in a report that was perhaps 50 pages long. However, with acute sensitivity to charges of discrimination, at a public session, the bank’s president zeroed in with laser-like focus on this single line. Now, the bank president was not a particularly nice person. He was known for demeaning staff members and customers alike. He was unaccustomed to being challenged and was angry, to say the least.
“Do you have proof?!” he bellowed.
“Yes,” I replied righteously. I did have proof.
“Has it happened more than once?”
“Yes. Multiple times.” I did not have proof of this.
“Re-do this report. Include explicit proof of these incidents, with dates, places and the people involved!”
“Since that moment, I have the most profound empathy for every politician or public figure who is suddenly caught in a lie! The untrue words came so easily. I was passionate about what I knew to be true but then immediately panicked that my “exaggeration” would be discovered and I would be held accountable in ways I could not yet imagine. Eventually, nothing of real substance occurred, but these events forever helped me understand how easy it was to stretch the truth, even for the best of reasons.” (p.110-111)
I do not mean to set a moral equivalency, to equate this incident—prompted by outrage over dehumanizing discrimination—with Michael Cohen’s seduction by power and greed. I only mean to acknowledge how easy it is for any of us to be swept up in external forces and motivated to lie, and how one lie can lead to another and then another until the truth becomes untethered to the stories we tell about ourselves. (see also Sissila Bok; Lying: Moral Choice in Private and Public Life).
There are many takeaways from Michael Cohen’s testimony before the House committee. I, for one, was reminded of how easy it is to slip into a lie, how hard it is to reclaim our integrity once we do and how we all need to vigilantly guard against such behavior, even when we are convinced that we are in the right.