Berkshires listeners sift for truth on Trump conduct

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ADAMS — Lunch was calling at the Council on Aging meal site, so after watching the start of explosive testimony to a House committee, Ernie LeBeau, of Cheshire, fired up his digital video recorder.

LeBeau didn't want to miss any of Wednesday's coverage of President Trump's former personal lawyer before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform.

As he headed north, LeBeau was already a bit fired up himself about what Michael Cohen was saying. "He should not be testifying at all, especially with Trump over negotiating with North Korea," LeBeau said of Cohen. "You don't do this when your president is out of the country."

It wasn't quite must-see TV, not an O.J. Simpson verdict able to stop people in their tracks, but Cohen's seven hours and 20 minutes before the committee had people buzzing in Berkshire County.

As multiple investigations continue into aspects of Trump's run for office and his presidency, the first extended public comments by one of his closest advisers registered as a milestone of sorts, people said in interviews around the region.

But they felt wary, too.

Suzanne Harnick, sitting over a late breakfast at the Daily Grind in Adams, was one of several to stress the importance of verifying Cohen's statements. She planned to tune in to cable TV analysis later in the day.

"There really have to be facts. At this point, the acting skills of politicians are so polished," Harnick said. "It's really hard to know what's true and can be backed up by real evidence. It's not enough to watch and say, `He seems credible.'"

That's important in part because Cohen appears to be working to rehabilitate his reputation as the take-no-prisoners "fixer" for the president, she said.

Still, Harnick said Cohen's testimony, which included documents shared with the committee, could turn out to be pivotal.

"In retrospect, it may be very significant. But right now we can't be sure," she said. "He's certainly a person of interest."

JoAnne Mary Roulier, of Adams, has an on-again, off-again relationship with politics and doesn't always vote. But after finishing lunch at her town's Council on Aging, Roulier planned to catch up with the House proceedings.

"I don't like to form an opinion until I hear all the facts," she said. "Then I kind of weigh everything."

As people cleared away dishes and wiped down tables, LeBeau, the Cheshire man who voted for the president and owns not one but two Trump baseball caps, was preparing to get back to what he'd missed on TV. He was looking forward to see how Sean Hannity, a Fox News host, would dissect the news produced on Capitol Hill.

It bothered LeBeau that Cohen, who must surrender to a federal prison in two months and begin what could be a three-year sentence for various crimes, was talking about a former legal client.

"You think when you go to your lawyer it will be confidential. But apparently not," he said. Cohen's claim about being willing to take a bullet for the president seemed to have expired, LeBeau noted.

LeBeau saw Cohen's testimony as a betrayal. "And now look what he's doing. He's lied in the past, so you don't know if he's lying," he said.

LeBeau wasn't the only one urging listeners to consider the source. But most of those stopped for interviews in the region expressed interest in knowing what Cohen had to say in his high-stakes appearance, and many were inclined to believe him.

Cody Barber, a student at Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield, said Cohen seemed to him to be a "broken" man looking to redeem himself with a newfound honesty. In his opening statement, Cohen said he told lies but isn't a liar. And Cohen said he can't alter the past but can try to change how he will be viewed by history.

"He's trying to do right by it, and I kind of respect that," Barber said of Cohen.

Fellow student Calob Cunagin, sitting beside Barber in the college's cafeteria, said he and many people his age just don't trust what goes on in government.

"A lot of people in that field break the law," he said of politicians. "I lost faith a long time ago."

Cunagin said he didn't support Trump, but thinks he's doing some things right. That doesn't include the president's handling of issues on the U.S.-Mexican border, particularly the separation of migrant families.

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"I don't think you should be thrown into a camp," he said.

Both Barber and Cunagin said they are eager to have lingering questions about the Trump presidency put to rest, perhaps through information eventually provided by special counsel Robert Mueller.

"Of course, resolution's always good to have," Cunagin said.

"It would help ease people's minds," Barber added.

Piece of the puzzle

Deb Silveira, who works for the Adams-Cheshire schools, said Cohen's appearance is a piece of the puzzle regarding the Trump presidency. Testimony before Congress is how a civil society goes about understanding itself, in her view.

"It's part of the Democratic process. You formulate your own opinion, based on the testimony," she said, pausing from her breakfast at the Daily Grind.

In her mind, it wasn't just another day of news.

"This is the president's personal lawyer. Just to have that insight into the mindset of the president," Silveira said, stressing the potential importance of what Cohen had to say. "He was the right hand of the leader of our country."

But like her friend Harnick across the table, Silveira said it's important to check facts.

"Listening to the entire picture before forming a judgment," she said. "Let it all play out. In four years, I'm hoping we have a change."

At Manhattan Pizza Co. in Great Barrington, owner Hamilton Pereira and cook Jose Perez were riveted by the hearing, watching it from the kitchen on the large wall-mounted set in the restaurant's take-out area.

"The good stuff is all bad stuff," Pereira said of Cohen's testimony. "He spilled the beans today — put Trump on a plate."

Pereira, 55, is originally from Rio de Janeiro, and has owned the restaurant for 32 years. He said he leans toward believing Cohen's claims, and even more so because he believes that Cohen might not have anything to lose because he's going to jail.

Pereira said he wasn't surprised to hear Cohen's speak about Trump's interest in cultivating prospects for his family's business in Russia, work that overlapped with Trump's run for the presidency in 2016.

Pereira said he is generally not a fan of the president. While he thinks Trump has done a few good things, like boosting the economy, the president's stand on immigration aggravates him.

"I can't find American workers," he said, noting that prevalence of immigrants in the local workforce.

He points to Perez, who is from Mexico and has worked at the shop for 15 years.

Perez, laying pepperoni slices onto a pie, said he trusts Cohen.

Barb Reeves, of Sheffield, was wrapping up a planning session for a new addiction recovery group in North Adams when asked how she views Cohen's appearance before Congress. She said his trustworthiness is suspect, given that he's going to jail in part for lying to Congress.

"My hope is that he'll have documentation to back up what he is saying. Otherwise, what do you expect when the liar's boss is a liar," she said. "The fish rots from the head down."

Eagle reporters Heather Bellow and Scott Stafford contributed to this report.-

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.


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