Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s grilling of Michael Cohen showed how the freshman lawmaker can defy expectations

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at Michael Cohen's congressional hearing on Wednesday.

  • Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez used her questioning time during Michael Cohen’s Wednesday congressional hearing to do something few other lawmakers did effectively: ask questions and elicit answers. 
  • Rather than grandstanding, Ocasio-Cortez had Cohen name several individuals Congress could subpoena to provide new information about the president’s alleged financial crimes. She won widespread praise. 
  • The questioning showed how Ocasio-Cortez can simultaneously do her job and hold a captive audience. 

The meat of Michael Cohen’s allegations against President Donald Trump were made during the first 30 minutes of Wednesday’s congressional hearing. Members of Congress elicited little new information from the president’s former lawyer and fixer in the hours of testimony that followed his explosive opening statement. 

Most Republicans used their time to ream Cohen out, painting a picture of a revenge-seeking “pathological liar.”

Most Democrats used their questioning time to grandstand and restate the evidence of alleged crimes the president has committed.

Neither approach led to much substantive progress in what was supposed to be an effort at truth-seeking.

Reporters and pundits took to Twitter throughout the day to criticize lawmakers for showboating. They tweeted suggested questions and begged the committee members to do their jobs. 

It seems that Ocasio-Cortez listened. 

When she was given her five minutes of questioning time towards the end of the day, the freshman lawmaker dove into an efficient series of questions about Trump’s alleged financial crimes.

In just a few minutes, Ocasio-Cortez had Cohen explain how Trump allegedly deflated the value of his assets to pay fewer taxes and inflated their value for insurance purposes. Cohen named three men he claims are associated with the National Enquirer who allegedly possess potentially damaging information about the president. He named three Trump Organization executives who could also be useful to the House Oversight Committee.

Ocasio-Cortez also made the case for Congress to investigate Trump’s tax returns and financial information.

“Do you think we need to review [Trump’s] financial statements and his tax returns in order to compare them?” Ocasio-Cortez asked.

“Yes, and you’d find it at the Trump Org,” Cohen said. 

Read more: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley peppered Michael Cohen with questions about Trump’s taxes and foundation that could spell more trouble for the president

‘Impossible not to respect’

Those four minutes of questioning won Ocasio-Cortez overwhelming praise, including from some skeptics.

Legal experts say it laid important groundwork for Congress to subpoena new individuals and information relating to Trump’s alleged financial crimes. 

“None of the representatives before her bothered to pursue those areas,” Jeffrey Cramer, a longtime former federal prosecutor who spent 12 years at the Justice Department, told INSIDER. “It does lay the groundwork for what every American should want. Specifically, a critical review of the finances for the most powerful person in the world.”

Patrick Cotter, a former federal prosecutor who worked with members of the special counsel Robert Mueller’s team, called Ocasio-Cortez’s questioning “not new or unexpected, but definitely foreshadowing” in an email to INSIDER. 

Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler, who has clashed with the lawmaker in the past, argued that lawmakers should follow Ocasio-Cortez’s example.

New York Magazine columnist Ed Kilgore wrote, “I’m probably the last passenger to climb aboard the @AOC train. But her performance today was impossible not to respect.” The New York Times ran an op-ed on Thursday titled, “How Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Won the Cohen Hearing.”

Ocasio-Cortez thanked her supporters and used the moment to credit her non-traditional training and her staffers. 

“Bartending + waitressing (especially in NYC) means you talk to 1000s of people over the years. Forces you to get great at reading people + hones a razor-sharp BS detector,” she tweeted. “Just goes to show that what some consider to be ‘unskilled labor’ can actually be anything but.” 

alexandria ocasio cortez ayanna pressley rashida tlaib

Ocasio-Cortez knows her audience

Many lawmakers use congressional hearings to make a name for themselves.

Sen. Kamala Harris gained national notoriety as a freshman senator when she was cut off and rebuked during her questioning of Trump administration officials. GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham won right-wing praise when he slammed Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings as the “most unethical sham” he’d seen in politics. 

But Ocasio-Cortez already has a bigger name than most other DC lawmakers, and her Twitter reach is second only to the president. 

Some have pointed out that younger members like Ocasio-Cortez don’t need to grandstand during hearings in part because they don’t communicate with their audience through televised news. 

Read more: Fox News hosts accuse Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of ‘admitting to civilizational suicide’ after the congresswomen asks if it’s ‘okay to still have children’ with the threat of climate change

“When they need to attract media attention, when they need to speechify, they use social media. That’s how they connect,” Elie Mystal, a commentator at Above the Law, tweeted about freshmen Democrats.

Ocasio-Cortez can reach millions of her followers and influence news coverage through social media, and she can use congressional hearings to simply do her job. 

The freshman congresswoman likely also knew that anything she did or said at the hearing would attract significant attention. And that every word would be heavily scrutinized — as her treatment by conservative media has proven

She later argued on Twitter that as a woman of color she is held to a higher standard.

“We’re used to being held to a diff bar. To being doubted. To getting new hoops thrown @ us last min,” she tweeted. “So we know how to perform.”

Sonam Sheth contributed to this report. 

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