By Nathan Layne
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen told the U.S. Congress on Wednesday that Trump is a “racist,” a “conman” and a “cheat” who knew in advance about a release of emails by the WikiLeaks website aimed at hurting his 2016 Democratic presidential rival.
Cohen, Trump’s onetime “fixer,” said Trump directed negotiations for a real estate project in Moscow during the White House race even as Trump publicly said he had no business interests in Russia, according to Cohen’s prepared testimony.
The hearing before a Democratic-led House of Representatives committee got off to a contentious start when the panel’s top Republican tried but failed to postpone the session, complaining about the timing of Cohen providing his written testimony to the panel.
In his opening statement, Cohen said he would hand over documents to support his assertions.
“I am ashamed of my weakness and misplaced loyalty – of the things I did for Mr. Trump in an effort to protect and promote him,” Cohen said in his opening statement. “I am ashamed because I know what Mr. Trump is. He is a racist. He is a conman. He is a cheat.”
Trump ordered him to pay $130,000 to adult film actress Stormy Daniels to cover up an affair in violation of campaign finance laws, and also told Cohen to lie about it to first lady Melania Trump, according to Cohen’s statement.
Although many accusations against Trump emerged in news reports during his 2016 campaign and since he took office, the televised congressional testimony of a former loyalist provides a detailed public record with the potential to influence a large U.S. audience.
The sweeping claims against Trump, from a man who once said he would take a bullet for his boss, come as Special Counsel Robert Mueller appears to be close to completing his investigation into possible collusion between Trump’s 2016 campaign team and Russian efforts to sway the vote.
Trump, who has denied any collusion between his campaign and Moscow, has called the Mueller investigation a “witch hunt” and has called Cohen a liar trying to reduce his prison time and a “rat.”
“He did bad things unrelated to Trump. He is lying in order to reduce his prison time,” Trump said in a post on Twitter on Wednesday from Vietnam, where he was meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to try to break a stalemate over the North’s nuclear weapons.
Later, sitting alongside Kim, Trump did not answer reporters’ questions about Cohen, who is scheduled to begin a three-year prison term in May after pleading guilty to multiple criminal charges.
U.S. officials have said the emails released by WikiLeaks were stolen by Russia as part of Moscow’s campaign of hacking and propaganda during the presidential race aimed at sowing discord in the United States and harming Trump rival Hillary Clinton.
Trump has previously denied knowing in advance about the WikiLeaks release of Democratic National Committee (DNC) emails during the election.
Cohen, in his prepared comments, said he was in Trump’s office in July 2016 when Roger Stone, a self-described “dirty trickster” and longtime political adviser to Trump, called the Republican presidential candidate.
Cohen said Stone told Trump he had been speaking with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who told him there would be a dump of emails within a couple of days that would damage Clinton’s campaign.
On July 22, 2016, WikiLeaks released internal DNC emails that drove a wedge between supporters of Clinton and her rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, Senator Bernie Sanders. Although Clinton won the nomination, that rift weakened her candidacy.
“Mr. Cohen’s statement is untrue,” Stone said in an email, but did not specify which parts of the statement he meant.
Stone was indicted by Mueller on charges of lying to Congress about his communications with others related to WikiLeaks email dumps.
Stone, who has pleaded not guilty to charges brought by Mueller’s team, denies having advance knowledge of WikiLeaks’ plans, although text messages reviewed by Reuters show that during the campaign he made several attempts to make contact with Assange.
However, Cohen said in his statement he does not have direct evidence that Trump or his campaign colluded with Russia.
“I do not. I want to be clear. But I have my suspicions,” Cohen said.
Cohen also said he would provide letters he wrote at Trump’s behest that threatened his high school and colleges not to release his grades or test scores.
Cohen, 52, was one of Trump’s closest aides and fiercest defenders, working with him on business and personal deals for a decade. But he turned against him last year and is cooperating with prosecutors after pleading guilty to tax evasion, bank fraud and campaign finance violations.
It is not clear whether Cohen’s testimony will significantly alter public perception of Trump’s business practices or put him in greater legal peril.
Cohen made no comment to reporters as he arrived on Capitol Hill early Wednesday morning.
In the prepared remarks, Cohen apologizes for his initial statements to Congress in 2017, in which he said efforts to build a Trump skyscraper in Moscow had ceased by January 2016, when in fact they continued through June 2016. Cohen said Trump’s lawyers “reviewed and edited” those false statements to Congress.
According to a person familiar with the matter, Cohen’s first statement to Congress was drafted by his lawyer Stephen Ryan and circulated among half a dozen lawyers who were part of a joint defense agreement, including the president’s personal lawyers. Rudy Giuliani, a lawyer for Trump, and Ryan did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Cohen said Trump on multiple occasions inquired about the project while telling the public he had no business dealings in Russia, a falsehood Cohen said reflected Trump’s view that the campaign was aimed only at building his brand.
“He lied about it because he never expected to win the election. He also lied about it because he stood to make hundreds of millions of dollars,” Cohen said.
Cohen described an incident in which Trump’s son, Donald Jr., walked behind his father’s desk and told him in a low voice: “The meeting is all set.” Cohen said Trump replied: “OK good … let me know.”
In hindsight, Cohen said he believed the son was referring to the June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower between a Russian lawyer promising “dirt” on Clinton and members of Trump’s campaign.
Trump has denied having advance knowledge of the meeting, which has come under intense scrutiny in the Mueller probe.
Cohen said he planned to provide the committee with a copy of a $35,000 check Trump signed on Aug. 1, 2017, one in a series to reimburse him for paying off Daniels after Trump took office.
Cohen’s testimony will be made under penalty of perjury, but Republicans on the House oversight panel, including ranking member Jim Jordan, are likely to aggressively question Cohen’s credibility, given his guilty plea for lying to Congress last year.
(Reporting by Nathan Layne and Karen Freidfeld; additional reporting by Jeff Mason in Hanoi and Makini Brice in Washington; Editing by Kieran Murray, Will Dunham and Alistair Bell)