How the nation's news media covered Michael Cohen's 'opening act'

A version of this article first appeared in the "Reliable Sources" newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.

Posted Updated

Brian Stelter
, CNN Business
CNN — A version of this article first appeared in the "Reliable Sources" newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.

Now what?

"This," Rachel Maddow said, "is a feast day for the news gods."

Michael Cohen testified under oath on Wednesday. He incriminated President Trump. "We know what Democrats now see as their path for scrutiny," Chris Cuomo said Wednesday night. "The President may have broken the law while in office."

So now what? Viewers and readers need us in the news media to keep zooming out, way out. "What happened?" "Why does this matter?" "Is anything going to change?"

Here is Thursday's NYT front page


Catching up on what Cohen said

A top talent agent said to me Wednesday evening that their phone barely rang all day. "Everyone was watching," they said, no time for work.

Will that anecdote match up with the Nielsen ratings data? We'll find out on Thursday. Look for my story on CNN Business in the afternoon. Until then, here's some data from CNN Digital: "Wednesday is on track to be the third biggest day in the last year in live video starts, behind only the 2018 Midterm Election Day and Day 1 of the Kavanaugh/Ford Hearing," per CNN PR.

-- and CNNgo properties saw 5.6 million live video starts... and 25 million total video starts, showing lots of people wanted to catch up on the testimony later in the day.

-- Concurrent live streams peaked at 476,000 around 1:50 p.m., nearly four hours into the hearing... And the live blog on the home page recorded upward of 3 million unique visitors.

Live coverage around the world

The 10 a.m. hour of the hearing was shown everywhere. Univision cut away after an hour. The other broadcasters stayed with it until 2 p.m. ET, when they started to peel away — CBS first, then NBC, then ABC. The cable newsers fit in a couple commercial breaks during the intermissions.

This was not just a US event. Cohen's testimony was live on Al Jazeera English, BBC World News, Sky News, CBC News, France 24... the list goes on and on... Per CNN's Mary Ilyushina in Moscow, even Russian state TV network Rossiya 24, which she says "rarely covers Trump-related investigations in much detail," broadcast some of the testimony live.

It's about the crimes

Cohen is saying that President Trump is a crook. Full stop. Cohen's credibility is certainly an issue, his allegations may not hold up, but he is alleging that this is a criminal presidency. Judge Andrew Napolitano said on Fox that Cohen accused Trump of "at least four potential felonies" — IF "the government can corroborate what he said today."

Cohen also said that SDNY is investigating some other, unspecified illegal act by Trump.

ABC contributor Chris Christie's analysis repeatedly made news on Wednesday. An example: He said Cohen's words that "would send a chill up my spine at the White House would be, 'I am in constant contact with the Southern District.'"

Later in the day, Mueller biographer Garrett Graff said on CNN that "we saw evidence, convincing credible evidence, that the POTUS was engaged in federal felonies while in the White House." But, Cuomo said, "this is a political contest," and the Republicans "had no interest in it! They had no curiosity."

"The opening act"

Donny Deutsch, a friend of Cohen who has been keeping in close touch with him, speaking with MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell: "This is the opening act." Deutsch said Cohen provided just "a peek inside this criminal enterprise," with much more to come.

→ Commentators on both CNN and MSNBC brought up the RICO Act on Wednesday night. "The president's running a racket," Jack Quinn said on CNN.

Notes and quotes

-- Chuck Todd on NBC: This was "the first unofficial hearing of the impeachment process, whether you want to call it that or not, that's what history is going to show."

-- Sharon LaFraniere in the live chat during the hearing: "It feels like for once, we got into a Mueller witness room, including a close-up of the credibility problems of those who are being questioned about Trump."

-- CNN's Amanda Katz tweeted: "One of the most striking things about the Cohen opening statement is how neatly it corroborates literal *years* of reporting that the WH has pushed back on — notably by NYT, WaPo, WSJ, CNN, BuzzFeed. Like finding out your whole shelf of spy novels is true."

-- WaPo's Greg Miller tweeted: "Cohen hearing was astonishing for 1) sheer volume and variety of alleged misconduct by the president 2) extent to which it all seems plausible and consistent with what we know of his character3) how numb we have become in two short yrs to such disclosures."

-- Bush 43 W.H. vet Peter Wehner writing for the NYT: "Republicans on the committee tried to destroy the credibility of Cohen's testimony, not because they believe that his testimony is false, but because they fear it is true."

-- Chris Cillizza listed the 29 most consequential lines from the hearing...

This is what stood out to Lowry

Brian Lowry emails: Among many, one line of Cohen's testimony really stood out: "The campaign, for him, was always a marketing opportunity." If you subscribe to that theory — that Trump entered the race to burnish his brand, and didn't expect to win — it explains a great deal about the way the campaign was conducted, and really offers the spine to much of the controversy that has followed.

A waste of time?!

Oliver Darcy emails: GOP lawmakers at several times on Wednesday suggested that having Cohen testify before Congress was a waste of time and beneath the dignity of the chamber. It had me thinking: Are these Republicans not aware of some of the business that they took up while in power? For instance, when Republicans controlled the House Judiciary Committee, the pro-Trump duo "Diamond & Silk" was invited to testify before Congress where they misled members. Other fringe right-wing personalities like Gateway Pundit founder Jim Hoft were also invited to testify before the House. All this is to say that it was hard to take Republican lawmakers seriously when they were leveling such criticism.

No questions about Hannity

Oliver Darcy emails: We know that Cohen performed legal work for Sean Hannity, and Cohen told the House that he has tapes of conversations with clients outside Trump. But Cohen was never asked about whether those tapes might include conversations with Hannity, and Cohen was never asked about what legal work he performed for the Fox News host. Hannity has previously said the services performed was limited to real-estate work, but it would have been interesting with Cohen under oath had he been asked about this.

More notes and quotes

-- From an emailer: "Isn't it funny that GOP lawmakers entered articles from Vanity Fair, CNN and Washington Post into the congressional record? It's all fake news until it is not."

-- WaPo's Greg Sargent said that Cohen's testimony "partly vindicated" BuzzFeed's disputed report about Trump directing Cohen to lie to Congress.

-- Cohen explained "catch and kill" and said David Pecker had a "treasure trove of documents." AOC asked: Does the treasure still exist? "I don't know," he said.

-- CNN's Jim Acosta on the admin's relative silence after the hearing: "If they have a war room for dealing with Michael Cohen's testimony, we haven't seen any signs of it."

GOP lawmakers indignant that Cohen might land a "book deal"

I lost track of the # of Republicans who questioned whether Cohen would cash in by getting a book deal. It sure sounded like a GOP talking point. "I have no book deal right now," Cohen said at one point, but "I have been contacted" about TV, movie, book deals, etc... And he said he does plan to seek a book deal in the future.

Hey, speaking of "book deals..."

Andrew McCabe's "The Threat" is debuting at No. 1 on the NYT's nonfiction best seller lists this week... After 15 weeks on top, Michelle Obama's "Becoming" is slipping to No. 2... Just another bit of evidence that Trump-related books are in high demand... The free market at work!

Read more of Wednesday's "Reliable Sources" newsletter... And subscribe here to receive future editions in your inbox...

A final thought

Comedian Alex Baze of "Late Night with Seth Meyers" tweeted: "The Trump Presidency at this point is like when you've solved the puzzle at home but the contestants on TV keep on spinning the wheel."

Copyright 2023 by Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.