In explosive public testimony before Congress, Donald Trump’s former attorney Michael Cohen cast the president as a “racist” and a “conman” who engaged in criminal activity after taking office as president to cover up an illegal hush money payment to an adult film actor.
Appearing before the House oversight committee on Wednesday, Cohen became the first Trump associate to allege that Trump had prior knowledge that his longtime adviser, Roger Stone, was communicating with WikiLeaks during the 2016 election regarding the release of hacked Democratic Party emails.
He also said Trump was aware of the infamous Trump Tower meeting between members of his presidential campaign, including his son Donald Trump Jr, and a Russian lawyer with ties to the Kremlin, which was arranged under the pretense of receiving damaging information about Hillary Clinton.
Cohen’s testimony marked a rare opportunity for millions of Americans to bear witness to the account of a central player in multiple investigations ensnaring the president and his inner circle. Cohen acted for more than a decade as the president’s fixer – a role in which he became intimately familiar with both Trump’s personal and professional affairs.
It highlighted how the US president faces legal and political peril on at least two fronts – the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US election and possible ties between the Trump campaign and Moscow, as well as a criminal conspiracy to violate campaign finance laws through the payment of hush money.
“Today, I am here to tell the truth about Mr Trump,” Cohen said in his opening statement.
“I am ashamed that I chose to take part in concealing Mr Trump’s illicit acts rather than listening to my own conscience,” he added. “I am ashamed because I know what Mr Trump is. He is a racist. He is a conman. He is a cheat.”
Cohen pleaded guilty in November to crimes that including lying to Congress and is scheduled to go to prison in May to begin a three-year sentence. Speaking in a measured tone, Cohen described his testimony as a step on “path of redemption” and apologized to the panel for his previous lies.
Trump, who arrived in Hanoi this week for a summit with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, accused Cohen of “lying in order to reduce his prison time”.
[Trump] wrote a personal check for the payment of hush money as part of a criminal scheme to violate campaign finance lawsMichael Cohen
Cohen testified publicly for the first time in detail about a six-figure sum that was paid to adult film actor Stormy Daniels to prevent her from speaking out about an alleged an affair with Trump. Cohen presented checks he said were signed by the president and his eldest son, Donald Trump Jr, to reimburse him for the hush money payments totaling $130,000.
“The president of the United States thus wrote a personal check for the payment of hush money as part of a criminal scheme to violate campaign finance laws,” Cohen said.
He told the panel Trump knew of and approved each step of the payments, and said the president committed other illegal acts that he was unable to discuss because they were under investigation.
Cohen added that he was instructed by Trump to lie about the alleged affair to the president’s wife, Melania Trump, stating: “Lying to the first lady is one of my biggest regrets because she is a kind, good person.”
The finding that Donald Jr was directly involved in the scheme to pay off Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, could mean the president’s son faces legal jeopardy. Federal prosecutors in New York, who have had copies of the checks and other records for months, say the payments violated campaign finance laws.
That investigation, which is being overseen by the southern district of New York, is also examining a six-figure payment made to Karen McDougal, a former Playboy model who also alleged an affair with Trump, by the National Enquirer. The tabloid, which is owned by the president’s close friend David Pecker, purchased the exclusive rights to McDougal’s story and then refused to publish it in a practice known as ‘catch-and-kill’.
Cohen said he presided over ‘several’ similar arrangements, while telling the committee: “These catch-and-kill scenarios existed between David Pecker and Mr. Trump long before I started working for him in 2007.”
The hearing began in dramatic fashion, with Republicans objecting to the leaking to the media of Cohen’s testimony late on Tuesday evening, and pushing to postpone the meeting. They were overruled by Democrats, who since assuming a majority in the House in January have vowed to act as a check on Trump.
“We are in search of the truth,” Elijah Cummings, the Democratic chairman of the committee, said.
But his exchanges with Republican lawmakers often grew contentious, as allies of the president aggressively sought to undermine Cohen’s credibility as a witness.
“You’re a pathological liar. You don’t know truth from falsehood,” Representative Paul Gosar of Arizona, told Cohen.
“Sir, I’m sorry, are you referring to me or the president?” Cohen retorted.
Responding to his testimony, Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign condemned Cohen as “a felon, a disbarred lawyer, and a convicted perjurer”.
“This is the same Michael Cohen who has admitted that he lied to Congress previously,” Trump campaign spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany said in a statement.
Cohen was convicted in December of crimes that included lying to Congress over negotiations around a possible Trump Tower project in Moscow during the 2016 campaign. Cohen testified on Wednesday that he briefed both the president’s son and the president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, about the deal approximately 10 times.
Donald Trump Jr hit back at Cohen on Twitter, suggesting this was all an attempt by the president’s former attorney to gain publicity.
In his testimony about the Trump Tower meeting, Cohen also said that he recalled Trump Jr telling his father “in a low voice” in early June 2016: “The meeting is all set.”
“I remember Mr Trump saying, ‘OK good … let me know,” Cohen said. He added that Trump had previously complained that Donald Jr “had the worst judgment of anyone in the world” and would not have set up a meeting of such significance without clearing it with his father.
Robert Mueller, the special counsel, is concluding a two-year investigation into any links or coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign. Cohen said he has spoken with the special counsel’s office on seven occasions.
Trump told Mueller in a series of written answers last year that he did not discuss WikiLeaks with Stone and did not know of the Trump Tower meeting in advance.
Stone previously claimed to have been in touch with Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, but now says that he was lying about this. Stonesaid: “Mr Cohen’s statement is untrue.”
Cohen’s remarks painted a scathing picture of a mobster-like president, who dispatched his former attorney to shortchange suppliers, threaten his schools that they must not release his student grades, and handle negative press around Trump’s avoidance of the Vietnam war draft.
In one particularly revealing exchange, Cohen said he had probably threatened an individual on Trump’s behalf at least 500 times under his former boss’s instructions.
Cohen said he planned to produce false financial statements Trump provided to Deutsche Bank in pursuit of loans. Citing a Guardian article to illustrate his argument, Cohen said Trump inflated his wealth to secure a place on rich lists and artificially reduced it to avoid paying tax.
Cohen went on to note that Trump said black people were “too stupid” to vote for him and remarked during a drive through a poor area of Chicago that “only black people could live that way”.
“The country has seen Mr Trump court white supremacists and bigots. You have heard him call poorer countries “shitholes,” Cohen said. “In private, he is even worse.”