Michael Cohen’s verbal somersault, ‘I lied, but I’m not a liar,’ translated by a rhetoric expert

Michael Cohen, who admits to lying, also says he’s not a liar.

Can we separate what someone does from who they are? Cohen thinks we should and it would help us to understand both him and Trump better.

Cohen, Donald Trump’s former personal attorney and fixer, testified before Congress about his former client Wednesday.

Cohen claimed that he wanted “to correct the record” about his previous testimony. Correcting the record now, Cohen hoped, would prove to the nation that lying was what Cohen did, but not who he is.

“I have lied, but I am not a liar,” said Cohen. “I have done bad things, but I am not a bad man,” he assured Congress.

At issue in Cohen’s testimony, therefore, were the points of stasis, a Greek term used here to mean “points of argument.” Those stases centered on fact and quality: What happened and how should we judge it?

As a scholar and teacher of rhetoric and argumentation who is finishing a book about Trump’s presidential campaign, I paid close attention to how Cohen explained his actions on Trump’s behalf to Congress.

Cohen relied on the argumentative strategy of dissociation – it’s not this, it’s that – to carefully separate his actions from his essence and Trump’s actions from Trump’s essence.

Cohen is sworn in to testify before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Exonerate Cohen, implicate Trump

According to this strategy a person who lies is not necessarily a liar; a person who does bad things is not necessarily a bad person.

The strategy invites audiences to separate the elements of an apparent unity – the person who does the thing is the thing – so that each can be judged separately. By doing this, Cohen attempted to exonerate himself and implicate Trump in several fraudulent schemes and attempted to define Trump’s essence as a “racist, a con man, and a cheat.”

Trump called Cohen a liar when he tweeted – and then retweeted while Cohen was testifying – that Cohen was disbarred for “lying and fraud” and that he lied again in his testimony. Cohen is a liar who lied, it is his essence, claimed Trump.

Likewise, Republican lawmakers who questioned him rejected Cohen’s attempt to dissociate actions from essence.

“If you’ve lied, then you are a liar,” Georgia Rep. Jody Hice told Cohen, in one of the more heated exchanges of the testimony.

Cohen’s testimony wasn’t just about his own essence, it was also about Trump’s essence.