Michael Cohen’s credibility was a point of contention among House Republicans on Wednesday. They rejected as laughable the possibility that he was telling the truth, with Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio going so far as to suggest that his very presence before the House Oversight Committee was an affront to Congress. “When we legitimize dishonesty, we delegitimize this institution,” he proclaimed, alluding to Cohen’s guilty plea on charges that he’d lied to a previous congressional committee. The GOP falling in lockstep behind the most dishonest president in recent memory went unmentioned by Republicans. But while their argument was in bad faith, their point had merit: Why believe the testimony of someone who has no credibility?
The same question could be asked of Representative Mark Meadows. Early in the hearing, the North Carolina Republican took it upon himself to defend Trump against Cohen’s allegation that he is a racist. Cohen’s evidence was anecdotal, but damning. “[Trump] once asked me if I could name a country run by a black person that wasn’t a ‘shithole,’” Cohen said. “And, he told me that black people would never vote for him because they were too stupid.” Meadows’s defense was that Trump had a black employee. “You made some very demeaning comments about the president that [Lynne] Patton doesn’t agree with,” Meadows said to Cohen, parading Patton, a black official with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, before the committee. “She says, as a daughter of a man born in Birmingham, Alabama, that there is no way she would work for an individual who was racist.”
Meadows added, “I’ve talked to the president over 300 times. I’ve not heard one time a racist comment out of his mouth in private.” This is immaterial — Trump has made enough racist remarks in public that his private conduct is mere window dressing. Accordingly, Rashida Tlaib, a freshman Democrat from Michigan, offered a withering assessment of Meadows’s defense later in the hearing. “The fact that someone would actually use a prop, a black woman, in this chamber, in this committee, is, alone, racist,” Tlaib said.
The committee had options regarding how to address Tlaib’s comments. Members could have let them pass unremarked upon; taken seriously the prospect that she was telling the truth; or let the situation devolve into an argument in which Meadows’s personal honor and reputation were the stakes. They chose the latter, with Meadows eventually invoking his nieces and nephews — who are themselves “people of color,” in his words — and calling on House Oversight Committee chairman Elijah Cummings to vouch for him. “Mr. Chairman, I asked that her words … be taken down and stricken from the record,” Meadows, red in the face, implored the Maryland Democrat, who is black. “I am sure she didn’t intend to do this, but if anyone knows my record as it relates [to the subject of race] it should be you, Mr. Chairman.”
Meadows’s record is indeed worth examining. During his first congressional run in 2012, he was an enthusiastic subscriber to the “birther” conspiracy theory peddled by Donald Trump. The subtext of the false claim that President Obama was born in Kenya was that his legitimacy as an American was open to dispute. It revitalized a timeworn principle that presumed the same of all black Americans — that they were not full citizens of the country they built, and that even after legal rulings to the contrary, that status was precarious and subject to challenge. Meadows gladly reaped the rewards of this challenge en route to victory. “[The year] 2012 is the time when we send Mr. Obama home to Kenya or wherever it is,” he said during one campaign stop. He repeated the line during a separate congressional candidates forum the same year.
Tlaib did not call Meadows a racist — a show of restraint, if anything, for the evidence was on her side. When asked to repeat her remarks, she made an outsize effort to clarify this: “I am not calling the gentleman, Mr. Meadows, a racist.” Meadows nevertheless responded as though she had and became defensive. “You and I have a personal relationship that’s not based on color,” Meadows said to Cummings. “And to even go down this direction is wrong, Mr. Chairman.” Meadows is perhaps a poor exemplar, if one subscribes to the misperception that racism is a matter of a rotten soul. Soon after his 2012 birther comments, he expressed regret in an interview with Roll Call. “Obviously bringing [birtherism] back is probably a poor choice of words on my part more than anything else,” he said. “I believe [Obama is] an American citizen.”
Whatever motivated this about-face, it seemed clear that the congressman’s bigotry was malleable, conditional even. He was not a true believer, no dyed-in-the-wool racist. The worst you could say about him was that he saw benefits in a racist campaign and hitched a ride. But far from exonerative, this behavior is the essence of racism. The interlocking network of individual prejudices, political and economic incentives, and social-organizing systems that comprise it could not be so seamlessly maintained were powerful people not willing to harness them for personal benefit. Whether Meadows actually believed what he was saying — or whether it stemmed from a place of personal animus — is irrelevant. His willingness in this case to perform racist acts in order to win an election was not functionally distinct from being racist as a state of being.
Tlaib may have been impolitic in her comments, but she was not being disparaging. She had sufficient evidence to describe Meadows, accurately, as a racist. She chose instead to draw a line between his behavior and his character. In public, at least, she entertained the notion that “racist” is a slur rather than a measurable descriptor. Why she did this is apparent: The impulse to protect the feelings of a racist colleague is both pragmatic toward maintaining a professional relationship, and indicative of a broader inability in American politics to speak honestly about — or even agree on the basic parameters of — racism. What became clear on Wednesday is that Meadows is not a credible arbiter of the term. Yet it was his position to which the committee was compelled to adjust — he was coddled, reassured, and if reports are accurate, embraced cordially by Tlaib on the House floor the next day. He was believed by some, and indulged by all, despite being demonstrably implausible on the subject. It was almost as if, despite Republicans’ insistence otherwise during the hearing, credibility was less important than guarding one of their own against a damning reality.