NEWS
01/03/2019 2:27 PM IST

Behind Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's Masterful Interrogation Of Michael Cohen

The questions that won the New York congresswoman praise were the combined product of committee staff expertise, collaboration and oratory skills.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) went viral again yesterday.

This time it wasn’t because of her dancing skills or an epic Twitter clapback, but thanks to her sharp questioning of Michael Cohen at the House oversight committee hearing on Wednesday.

The freshman New York congresswoman “expertly laid a trap” to get President Donald Trump’s tax returns, and “won” the Cohen hearing, according to two raving press accounts.

Ocasio-Cortez’s testimony focused primarily on Trump’s alleged deflation of his financial assets in order to lower his tax burden.

First, she zeroed in on Trump Links, a golf course in Ocasio-Cortez’s district that was constructed with $127 million in city taxpayer funds. The city’s deal with Trump nonetheless stipulated that the Trump Organization could keep all of the profits it earned from the course for the first four years.

“This doesn’t seem to be the only time the president has benefited at the expense of the public,” Ocasio-Cortez said, pivoting to the heart of the matter: Whether Trump deliberately deflated the value of Trump National Golf Club in Jupiter, Florida, to lower his local property tax bill.

“To your knowledge, was the president interested in lowering his local real estate tax bills?” she asked.

“Yes,” Cohen responded.

Ocasio-Cortez confirmed from Cohen that obtaining Trump’s federal and state tax returns would help ascertain the extent of his tax evasion efforts. And she also identified other individuals, such as Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg, who could testify about Trump’s practices prior to Cohen’s arrival in the organization.

Notwithstanding her impressive performance, the secret to Ocasio-Cortez’s success was remarkably prosaic ― a team effort informed by the desire to uncover truth for the public’s benefit, according to staff.

“If there was one person that wasn’t involved in this question preparation and committee preparation, it wouldn’t have been as successful as it was,” said Klarissa Reynoso, Ocasio-Cortez’s chief legislative correspondent who supervised the congresswoman’s preparation for the hearing.

Joshua Roberts / Reuters
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), left, listens to former Trump personal attorney Michael Cohen answer one of her questions at a House Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing on Wednesday.

Working alongside intergovernmental affairs chief Randy Abreu, Reynoso began her research on Cohen last Thursday when the staff learned the date of Cohen’s committee testimony.

The professional staff of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform worked nonstop last weekend to draft a list of 35 questions that each Democrat on the panel could choose from, and put their own stamp on.

On Tuesday, after conferring with Ocasio-Cortez, Reynoso met with committee staff to select a question. She chose to pursue the line of inquiry about Trump’s efforts to devalue golf course property to lower his taxes.

“If we didn’t ask those questions we would be doing an injustice for the American people,” Reynoso explained. “We wouldn’t be doing our jobs.”

“She’s thinking in broad terms and she’s thinking about her constituents,” Reynoso added. “That’s what you saw in terms of the Bronx golf course.”

The original question drafted by committee staff only mentioned Trump’s Jupiter golf course. Abreu, who grew up in the Bronx’s Fordham neighborhood just outside Ocasio-Cortez’s district, suggested that they add a reference to Trump Links. The taxpayer-funded golf course in an affluent enclave of New York’s otherwise working-class 14th Congressional District was the perfect emblem of the kind of greed and cronyism Ocasio-Cortez is committed to combating, according to Abreu. 

“It’s always been a good representation of the income inequality in the Bronx,” he recalled.

And Trump Links’ proximity to the Bronx-Whitestone bridge, which connects the Bronx part of Ocasio-Cortez’s district to the section in Queens, means that Ocasio-Cortez and her staff indeed see it regularly in the course of their travels in the district, which Ocasio-Cortez was sure to highlight.

“I drive past it everyday on my drive from the Bronx to Queens,” Ocasio-Cortez noted in the course of questioning Cohen.

She worded the question in a way better to suit her voice.Klarissa Reynoso, chief legislative correspondent for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Reynoso and Abreu drafted text of the question for Ocasio-Cortez, complete with references to supportive articles from The Washington Post and The New York Times. 

Ocasio-Cortez edited the copy with her own flourishes and ad-libbed some of the delivery to make it as accessible as possible to the ordinary viewer.

“She worded the question in a way better to suit her voice,” Reynoso said. “She’s also a very unique Congress member in that you can completely trust her to basically succeed in asking” the question that Democratic committee staff wanted her to ask. 

Since Ocasio-Cortez was one of the last oversight committee members to question Cohen, committee staff were also in constant real-time communication with Reynoso to make sure Ocasio-Cortez got a chance to follow up on questions for which other members had not received complete answers. 

As a result, Ocasio-Cortez was able to pick up a line of questioning from Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) about the existence and whereabouts of a “treasure trove” of incriminating documents that American Media Inc. CEO and National Enquirer publisher David Pecker had allegedly assembled on Trump’s critics. Cohen confirmed that Pecker, Barry Levine and Dylan Howard would know about whether the trove still exists, laying the groundwork for the committee to potentially subpoena those three individuals.

In framing her question about Trump’s devaluation of assets for tax purposes, Ocasio-Cortez also nodded briefly to questions from fellow Democratic Rep. Lacy Clay of Missouri about instances in which Trump inflated his assets in order to obtain loans from Deutsche Bank. She confirmed from Cohen that Trump had provided inflated asset assessments to an insurance company in the past.

“We had to make sure we finished what other people had started,” Reynoso said.

In less than two months as a member of Congress, Ocasio-Cortez’s interrogations as both a member of the oversight committee and the Financial Services Committee have already achieved national renown rare for a member of Congress. She produced viral video moments in committee hearings on pharmaceutical prices and campaign finance reform and made a splash when she brought attention to racial inequality in the legal marijuana industry.

Ocasio-Cortez’s star power has undoubtedly contributed to the exposure her committee exchanges have gotten. At age 29, she is the youngest woman ever to serve in Congress, and as a democratic socialist who unseated one of the House’s most powerful Democrats, the congresswoman is an object of extraordinary fascination for the media.

One advantage Ocasio-Cortez has over some colleagues is that she consistently attends even the most mundane committee hearings, since she does not spend any of her day calling donors for money. Her online presence is strong enough that she has chosen to rely on it exclusively to raise contributions in smaller increments.

But Reynoso and Abreu insist that her knack for clever questioning, which is a marked contrast with other members’ preference for grandstanding, is ultimately rooted in a commitment to moving the needle for her constituents.

“She’s an organizer and you can see that in her questions. She is asking questions that advocates need to know,” Reynoso said. “That is unique among most members.”