When Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez interviewed to join the House Oversight & Government Reform Committee after she was first elected in 2018, its late chairman Elijah Cummings asked her plainly, “Are you willing to do the work?” The question was unsurprising, given that his impression of her was the same as many in Washington.
Ocasio-Cortez had just pulled off a stunning primary defeat of Democratic Caucus Chairman Joe Crowley, and had become instantly famous for her outspokenness and social media presence. That might have given the measured but never timid chairman understandable pause. Despite its name, the committee often devolves into a place where blowhards bloviate to get time in front of the camera, thus allowing them to further their profiles by appearing on cable news that evening. Cummings clearly wasn’t looking for more of that.
But New York Attorney General Letitia James’s announcement of a lawsuit against former president Donald Trump — which Ocasio-Cortez triggered with questioning of former Trump fixer and attorney Michael Cohen — shows that the answer to Cummings’s question is a resounding “yes.” And furthermore, it shows how, despite being perhaps the most visible Democratic member of Congress not named Nancy Pelosi, both AOC’s fans and detractors underestimate her.
James — who, after taking down former governor Andrew Cuomo and now filing this lawsuit against Trump, might just be the most powerful Black female politician in America — said that the investigation began after Cohen told Congress about how the former president inflated his assets.
Cohen’s remarks came in response to questions from none other than Ocasio-Cortez back in February 2019 when he testified before the House Oversight & Government Reform Committee. At the time, Cohen was in the initial stages of a political about-face. Having previously threatened and demeaned people in defense of Trump, he was beginning to turn against his longtime benefactor.
It was also Ocasio-Cortez’s first committee hearing since she had been sworn in. I was in my office watching the hearing, and I fully expected her to pontificate once her turn on the dais came. Instead, she asked some of the most nuanced questions of the entire hearing. In particular, she asked Cohen whether Trump had knowingly inflated the value of his assets, to which he responded in the affirmative.
The questions were notably pointed, and she focused more on the hard facts than many Republicans — who mainly used the hearing to demonstrate who could be the biggest apologist for Big Daddy Trump —and some Democrats, who chose to use their time more for soliloquy than investigation. Indeed, AOC’s fellow Squad member Rashida Tlaib of Michigan caused a row when she accused then-Representative Mark Meadows of being a bigot, which caused him to take performative umbrage at such an accusation. It was a performance that Meadows nailed so capably that Trump awarded (punished?) him with a job as his final White House chief of staff.
While it may have taken more than three years for Ocasio-Cortez’s savvy line of questioning to bear fruit, the fact that her inquiries led to the lawsuit today speaks volumes about her political skill. AOC is often masterful at asking the questions other people don’t think to ask. And doing so can have wide-ranging consequences. Not only did her questioning of Cohen lead to James’ lawsuit, but the specific allegations — that Trump inflated his worth and lied about his wealth — did a particular wound to the former president. Trump projects an image — one beloved by his fans — of a highly competent emperor of New York business. That image is now being dismantled, and he’s starting to look like he could be a con artist, just in time for the midterms and the runup to the 2024 presidential election.
Ocasio-Cortez has had a rough go at it ever since she was sworn into Congress three years ago. Conservatives, seemingly enraged by her popularity with young voters, have repeatedly reduced her to her previous occupation by calling her “the bartender”, or verbally harassed her on the steps of the US Capitol. This vitriol reached its most revolting nadir when Paul Gosar posted an anime parody that depicted her being killed in cartoon form.
And despite her widespread popularity with the online left, AOC does not wield much influence within the Democratic Party. Contrary to popular belief, the most left-wing voices are not the base of the party — rather Black voters, particularly older ones who overwhelmingly skew conservative to moderate, comprise much of the base. As a result, Ocasio-Cortez’s preferred presidential candidate Bernie Sanders lost the Democratic nomination to Joe Biden and she was only given 60 seconds to speak at the Democratic National Convention in 2020. In Congress, she and her fellow members of the Squad lost their fight to pass Build Back Better alongside the bipartisan infrastructure bill and had to swallow a much slimmer climate bill written by Joe Manchin that included allowing lease sales for drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska.
But her capacity to ask measured questions that get results shows she is a valued asset for Democrats going forward. Furthermore, while many political pundits like to compare her to some of the Republican bomb-throwers like Representatives Marjorie Taylor-Greene, Lauren Boebert and Matt Gaetz, they are all fundamentally unserious about doing the jobs to which their constituents elected them. Rather, they have shown time and again that they are more interested in — to borrow a phrase from the right — virtue-signaling to their base. Whatever one’s thoughts are on the merits of Ocasio-Cortez or the rest of the Squad’s policies, one cannot deny that they are there to work.
This is an important distinction, and it will serve all of them well, especially since Democrats are largely expected to lose their majority in the House this November. It will be the first time since Ocasio-Cortez’s tenure that Democrats have been in the minority. Thus, for the time being, she can continue to serve as someone who will ask pointed questions that none of her contemporaries will. One might imagine she’s making the late Elijah Cummings proud.