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Opinion | Sonali Kolhatkar

Cohen Hearing Shows How Trump’s Presidency Is Built on Racism

Michael Cohen testifies before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. (CNBC screen shot)

Michael Cohen’s explosive testimony Wednesday before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee illuminated multiple issues. Many themes emerged during the hours-long public hearing on Capitol Hill featuring President Donald Trump’s former attorney, including cronyism, bribery, corruption, deception, greed and crime. But one of the enduring themes was racism—Trump’s racism in particular, and by extension, that of his colleagues in continuing to defend and protect him.

Early in his opening remarks, Cohen said about the president, “He is a racist.” Later, he gave more detail, saying, “The country has seen Mr. Trump court white supremacists and bigots. You have heard him call poorer countries ‘shitholes.’ ” Giving actual examples of his personal interactions with Trump, Cohen explained, “In private, he is even worse. He once asked me if I could name a country run by a black person that wasn’t a ‘shithole.’ This was when Barack Obama was president of the United States.” He then gave a second example: “While we were once driving through a struggling neighborhood in Chicago, he commented that only black people could live that way.”

None of this is surprising to honest observers of the Trump presidency. Trump used discriminatory practices to build his real estate career. He took great pleasure for years in perpetuating the racist notion that President Obama was not a natural-born citizen. He jumped on the racist fears of a resentful white minority to scrape together an election win and then proceeded to feed the insatiable mob relentlessly with dehumanizing policies and rhetoric aimed at communities of color.

So Cohen’s assertions of Trump’s racism were hardly shocking. They are perfectly consistent with many things the president has said and done prior to the election and during his presidency. But the Republican Party was having none of it. During Wednesday’s hearings, Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., revealed a surprise guest—a black woman named Lynne Patton, who works at the Department of Housing and Urban Development and who is a friend of the Trump family.

Meadows, whose aim was apparently to display Patton as a prop to undermine claims of Trump’s racism, said to Cohen, “You made some very demeaning comments about the president that Patton doesn’t agree with. In fact, it has to do with your claim of racism.” He added, “As a daughter of a man born in Birmingham, Alabama, [according to Patton] there is no way that she would work for an individual who was racist.” When asked, “How do you reconcile the two of those?” Cohen shot back, “As neither should I, as the son of a Holocaust survivor.”

For people of color, this is a familiar and weary ploy by some whites who feel that any positive association with a person of color nullifies their racism. Meadows’ stunt was equivalent to the discredited tactic used by those who, when accused of racist behavior, respond with, “Some of my best friends are black.” In 2019, such responses should no longer be acceptable—except that for Trump and for much of the GOP, whose bigotry often seem right out of America’s Jim Crow era, that kind of talk is perfectly acceptable and reasonable. And when confronted by accusations of racism, they generally turn around and accuse the accuser of racism.

Just days before the Cohen testimony, Trump responded to filmmaker Spike Lee’s Oscar acceptance speech exhorting people in 2020 to “Make the moral choice between love versus hate,” by accusing Lee of making a “racist hit” on him. (How does asking people to choose love over hate translate to racism?) He also implied Lee was ungrateful because in Trump’s view, he “has done more for African Americans (Criminal Justice Reform, Lowest Unemployment numbers in History, Tax Cuts, etc.) than almost any other Pres!” In other words, some of Trump’s best friends are black.

Only newly elected Reps. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., and Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., dared to call Meadows out for bringing Patton to the hearing. First, Pressley asked Cohen, “Would you agree that someone could deny rental units to African-Americans, lead the birther movement, refer to the diaspora as ‘shithole countries,’ and refer to white supremacists as ‘fine people,’ have a black friend and still be racist?” Cohen agreed with her.

Then Tlaib went even further and declared that Meadows’ gesture was racist, saying, “The fact that someone would actually use a prop, a black woman, in this chamber, in this committee, is alone racist in itself.” At this Meadows lost his composure, sputtering about how his nieces and nephews were people of color. Meadows’ defensive response and claims of associations with people of color as proof against his racism literally made Tlaib’s point about his rationale for bringing out Ms. Patton. Apparently, not only are some of Meadows’ best friends nonwhite, but some of his relatives as well.

In his closing remarks, Cohen went beyond the personal acts that reveal Trump’s racism by blasting the president for his racist policies, saying, “You don’t separate families from one another, or demonize those looking to America for a better life. You don’t vilify people based the god they pray to.”

For those of us living under the past two years of Trump’s presidency, the long nightmare has been about so much more than corruption, greed and a lack of decorum. It has been a modern-day existential threat. The millions of Americans who voted for Trump and still continue to support him effectively endorse his racist attitudes and are emboldened to act them out in parking lots, grocery stores and schools. Hate crimes have spiked. Children have been ripped away from their parents and have faced abuse.

What Cohen’s testimony confirms is that Trump’s corruption, deception and hunger for power are built on an edifice of racist scapegoating. America’s bigoted masses and their Republican representatives are perfectly happy to see a deceitful, self-interested, dirty-dealing failed businessman in the White House as long as he promises to restore the domination of the nation’s white population. Cohen himself helped to enable the Trumpian dumpster fire. But he seems to have seen the light. When will the rest of America?

Sonali Kolhatkar
Columnist
Sonali Kolhatkar is a columnist for Truthdig. She also is the founder, host and executive producer of "Rising Up With Sonali," a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV (Dish Network, DirecTV,…
Sonali Kolhatkar

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