Michael Cohen in 2011
Michael Cohen, a former lawyer for Trump, in 2011. Credit: IowaPolitics.com/FLICKR

When it comes to the idea that Republicans will aggressively investigate the Trump administration, I’m a pretty hard sell. I don’t have any experience that leads me to believe that the GOP can effectively police itself or put the interests of the country over narrow partisan interests. But, I also have open eyes and I notice when things defy my low expectations. For example, it’s significant when things like this happen:

One of President Donald Trump’s closest confidants, his personal lawyer Michael Cohen, has now become a focus of the expanding Congressional investigation into Russian efforts to influence the 2016 campaign.

Cohen confirmed to ABC News that House and Senate investigators have asked him “to provide information and testimony” about any contacts he had with people connected to the Russian government, but he said he has turned down the invitation.

“I declined the invitation to participate as the request was poorly phrased, overly broad and not capable of being answered,” Cohen told ABC News in an email Tuesday.

After Cohen rejected the Congressional requests for cooperation, the Senate Select Intelligence Committee voted unanimously on Thursday to grant the chairman, Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, and ranking Democrat, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, blanket authority to issue subpoenas as they deem necessary.

I think of Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr of North Carolina as a very conservative leader from a state where the Republican Party is setting the land speed record for unconstitutionally naked partisanship. There are other members of the Intelligence Committee, like John Cornyn of Texas, Jim Risch of Idaho, James Lankford of Oklahoma, and Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who I wouldn’t trust to watch my kids let alone conduct a thorough and aggressive investigation of a sitting Republican president. But that makes it all the more significant that they just voted unanimously to issue subpoenas for Donald Trump’s “consigliere” and “pitbull.”

One way of looking at this is that the best way to contain an investigation is to not ask certain questions. This would include questions that you don’t already know the answers to. You know this is happening when the minority party is constantly complaining that witnesses aren’t being called and subpoenas aren’t being issued. The House Intelligence Committee’s investigation under the leadership of Devin Nunes had all the hallmarks of a faux investigation. The Senate investigation looks more legit. The unanimity of the Republicans in this case is convincing evidence that they are legitimately concerned. But the more important factor is that they’re taking steps that will lead to places they can’t anticipate. This is a suicidal strategy for a defense team in court, and it’s a sign that they’re not approaching this as defense attorneys for the president.

They’re also showing an admirable level of fearlessness. Michael Cohen doesn’t mess around.

Insiders consider Cohen to be Trump’s “pitbull” or “consigliere” for his role in threatening legal action against Trump critics, gaining notoriety for threatening and browbeating reporters investigating Trump’s background.

He was quoted in 2015 telling Daily Beast reporters “I will take you for every penny you still don’t have. And I will come after your Daily Beast and everybody else that you possibly know … So I’m warning you, tread very f—ing lightly, because what I’m going to do to you is going to be f—ing disgusting.”

If the president of the United States is the most powerful man in the world, he’s also the most powerful man in the Republican Party. And he’s already made Michael Cohen a powerful man in the Republican Party.

Cohen was also made a deputy national finance chairman of the Republican National Committee, a position that gives him some sway on how money will be allocated to Republican candidates.

There are plenty of reasons for Republican senators to hesitate before displeasing Michael Cohen. He and Trump can make them feel the consequences. And then there is the Trump-supporting Republican base to consider. Yet, they’ve put all of that aside, at least for the moment, and come together to unanimously demand that Cohen provide answers about his connections to the Russians.

Unanimity counts for a lot, especially in the case of Cohen because he was prominently mentioned in former MI6 Russian desk officer Christopher Steele’s so-called “dodgy dossier.” Some aspects of that report that pertain to Cohen have been debunked, while others have defied verification. This has provided a powerful defense against the veracity of the entire document which could be quickly undermined if subpoenaed documents reveal something of genuine concern. Therefore, taking on Cohen is dangerous because it could overwhelm some of Trump’s central defense and lead to a kind of rout.

I don’t praise Republicans often, and it’s still a bit premature to be effusive or unreserved in my praise here. But I have to give credit where it is due. The Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee have shown courage here and real indications of seriousness. I wouldn’t have predicted it but I’m willing to acknowledge it now.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com