WASHINGTON • US President Donald Trump's former personal lawyer Michael Cohen told Congress yesterday that Mr Trump is a "racist", a "conman" and a "cheat" who knew in advance about a release of e-mails by the WikiLeaks website aimed at hurting his 2016 Democratic presidential rival.
Cohen, Mr Trump's one-time "fixer", said the US President directed negotiations for a real estate project in Moscow during the White House race even as he publicly said he had no business interests in Russia, according to Cohen's prepared testimony.
The hearing before a Democratic-led House of Representatives panel 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 committee.
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.
"I am ashamed because I know what Mr Trump is. He is a racist. He is a conman. He is a cheat."
Mr Trump ordered him to pay US$130,000 (S$175,000) 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 of the accusations against Mr Trump had 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 US audience.
The sweeping claims against Mr 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 Mr Trump's 2016 campaign team and Russian efforts to sway the vote.
Mr Trump, who has denied any collusion between his campaign and Moscow, has called the Mueller investigation a "witch hunt". He has also called Cohen a liar who is 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," Mr Trump said in a Twitter post yesterday from Vietnam, where he was meeting North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Later, sitting alongside Mr Kim, Mr 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.
US officials have said the e-mails 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 country as well as harming Mr Trump's rival, Mrs Hillary Clinton.
Mr Trump previously denied knowing in advance about the WikiLeaks release of Democratic National Committee (DNC) e-mails during the election.
Cohen, in his prepared comments, said he was in Mr Trump's office in July 2016 when Roger Stone, a self-described "dirty trickster" and long-time political adviser to Mr Trump, called the Republican presidential candidate.
Cohen said Stone told Mr Trump he had been speaking with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who told him there would be a dump of e-mails within a couple of days that would damage Mrs Clinton's campaign.
On July 22, 2016, WikiLeaks released internal DNC e-mails that drove a wedge between supporters of Mrs Clinton and her rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, Senator Bernie Sanders.
Although Mrs Clinton won the nomination, that rift weakened her candidacy.
"Mr Cohen's statement is untrue," Stone said in an e-mail, but did not specify which parts of the statement he meant.
Stone has been indicted by Mr Mueller on charges of lying to Congress about his communications with others related to WikiLeaks e-mail dumps.
Stone, who has pleaded not guilty to charges brought by Mr Mueller's team, denies having advance knowledge of WikiLeaks' plans, although text messages show that during the campaign he made several attempts to make contact with Assange.
However, Cohen said in his statement that he does not have direct evidence that Mr Trump or his campaign colluded with Russia.
"I do not. I want to be clear. But I have my suspicions," Cohen said.
Cohen, 52, was one of Mr 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.