Not the Impeachment We Need

By Chandra Bozelko

March 1, 2019 5 min read

Former fixer Michael Cohen's day of public testimony before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform was a daylong confessional. Over and over again, the House of Representatives admitted that it's really not in favor of criminal justice reform.

Congress passed a historic prison and sentencing revamp in December with the votes of 75 percent of Republican senators and 97 percent of Republican representatives. They assured themselves that only they could have accomplished the FIRST STEP Act. They mastered the reform rhetoric quickly, those same politicians citing "second chances" and mistakes while they plotted second and third steps.

The core of justice reform is releasing oneself from the practice of continuous condemnation for past mistakes for which an individual feels remorse and takes responsibility.

But instead of displaying that, every Republican committee member repeatedly lobbed Cohen's criminal convictions and pending incarceration at him as a reason he must have been lying about President Donald Trump. It was an outright betrayal of their fealty to reform.

While it was definitely Republicans who did this to Cohen during his marathon session, fault for dismissing the stories of people who've been punished doesn't rest with them alone. Just two weeks earlier, on Feb. 13, 2019, Ilhan Omar, a freshman Democratic Representative from Minnesota, reminded Elliott Abrams, a former assistant secretary of state, that he had pleaded guilty in 1991 to two counts of withholding information from Congress when he was to testify before the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

"I fail to understand why members of this committee or the American people should find any testimony you give today to be truthful," she told Abrams, establishing the standard for the 116th Congress: If you come before a House committee with an imperfect past, they're going to spotlight it.

Even without referencing a witness' felony convictions, politicians could have decided not to believe Cohen or Abrams and told each of them so. Instead, they chose to excoriate them for their rap sheets.

When people envisioned impeachment under a Trump administration, it didn't look like this.

Every one of us 70 million people in this country with criminal records who endured Cohen's hearing saw ourselves in him and recalled the moral thuggery we face about our own histories. We're wondering how a criminal justice reform agenda can proceed if our stories — which are both the justification and motivation for new laws — will be discounted.

The gang-up on Cohen was harmful to convicted felons because we're told that so much of rehabilitation and reform is telling our stories, explaining how we did the unthinkable or the perfectly stupid. Backstories are never simple; they're full of nuance, circumstances and life's maddening reversals.

Impeaching a witness by reducing that story to a one-word answer — "yes" or "no" — to the question of whether they've been convicted of a crime dodges how that credibility-sucking fact came into existence and forecloses that story's fullness. Even worse, it actually drives an exchange further away from the points being explored.

That's the irony of focusing on witnesses' criminal convictions: You get less truth than you're seeking. Many members of Congress burned at least half of their allotted five minutes on making sure Cohen knew he had lied before, which made the proceedings less of a hearing and more of a feeling — mad.

What happened to Cohen and Abrams was Congress' own brand of impeachment, as it's not court procedure. Rule 609 of the Federal Rules of Evidence mandates that explicitly relevant criminal convictions be reflected in a trial record so that a witness' credibility can be assessed.

But there are limitations in court. Proof of the conviction gets admitted into evidence once, not with every question. And the evidentiary value of exposing the conviction has to be greater than the thrill derived from making fun of someone who's involved with our legal system.

The contempt that representatives in the House oversight committee felt at holding Michael Cohen's criminal troubles against him was palpable. Their inherent commitment to removing barriers and discrimination on that same basis was not. Unfortunately, that's the key to the reform that needs to be achieved.

To find out more about Chandra Bozelko and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators website at www.creators.com.

Photo credit: at Pixabay

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