WASHINGTON (REUTERS) – Donald Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen assailed the president’s character in a tense congressional hearing on Wednesday (Feb 27), calling him a “conman” who knew in advance about the release of stolen e-mails aimed at hurting his 2016 election Democratic rival.
But Cohen, the Republican president’s one-time “fixer,” said he had no direct evidence that Mr Trump colluded with Moscow to bolster his White House campaign, a key line of inquiry in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation which has dogged Mr Trump during his two years in office.
“I am ashamed because I know what Mr Trump is. He is a racist. He is a conman. He is a cheat,” Cohen told a House of Representatives committee.
“Donald Trump is a man who ran for office to make his brand great, not to make our country great,” Cohen added.
“He had no desire or intention to lead this nation – only to market himself and to build his wealth and power.”
The White House had no immediate comment about Cohen’s testimony, but Mr Trump earlier on Wednesday accused his former employee of lying.
“He did bad things unrelated to Trump. He is lying in order to reduce his prison time,” Mr Trump wrote on Twitter from Vietnam, where he was meeting North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Cohen testified that Mr Trump approved hush payments to cover up extra-marital sexual relationships in violation of campaign finance laws, and 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.
He stopped short of saying that Mr Trump or his campaign directly conspired with Russia, although “I have my suspicions”.
“I wouldn’t use the word colluding,” Cohen said of Mr Trump’s dealings with Russia, but he added there was “something odd” about the president’s good relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“There are just so many dots that seem to lead in the same direction,” he said.
Republican lawmakers at the hearing repeatedly tried to undermine Cohen and his testimony, portraying him as an irredeemable liar who had benefited from financial crimes, and saying the hearing was an opening gambit in a Democratic push to impeach Mr Trump.
“I don’t believe Michael Cohen is capable of telling the truth,” said Republican Representative James Comer.
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.
Many of Cohen’s accusations had emerged in news reports during his 2016 campaign and since he took office, but the televised congressional testimony of a former loyalist provided a dramatic public record with the potential to influence a large US audience.
Cohen, who handed over documents to support his assertions, said Mr Trump ordered him to pay US$130,000 (S$175,000) to adult film actress Stormy Daniels to cover up a sexual relationship with Mr Trump in violation of campaign finance laws, and also told Cohen to lie about it to first lady Melania Trump.
The most damaging Cohen testimony indicated that Mr Trump knew in advance about a WikiLeaks dump of stolen e-mails from senior Democrats, that he pursued plans to build a Trump Tower in Moscow deep into the 2016 campaign and that he was directly involved in reimbursing Cohen for hush money payments.
The president, 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”.
Russia denies trying to influence the election.
The sweeping claims against Mr Trump, from a man who once said he would take a bullet for his boss, come as Mr Mueller appears to be close to completing his investigation into possible collusion between Mr Trump’s campaign and Russian efforts to sway the vote.
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 United States and harming Trump rival Hillary Clinton.
Mr Trump has previously denied knowing in advance about the release of hacked Democratic National Committee (DNC) e-mails during the election.
Cohen said he was in Mr Trump’s office in July 2016 when Roger Stone, a self-described “dirty trickster” and longtime political adviser to Mr Trump, called the then 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 was 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 reviewed by Reuters show that during the campaign he made attempts to make contact with Assange.
Cohen’s testimony was being made under penalty of perjury, but Republicans on the House oversight panel, including ranking member Jim Jordan, questioned Cohen’s credibility, given his guilty plea for lying to Congress last year.
Cohen apologised 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 Mr Trump’s lawyers “reviewed and edited” those false statements to Congress.
Cohen said Mr Trump on multiple occasions inquired about the Moscow real estate project while telling the public he had no business dealings in Russia, a falsehood Cohen said reflected Mr 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 Mr 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 Mr 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.
Mr 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 US$35,000 cheque Mr Trump signed on Aug 1, 2017, one in a series to reimburse him for paying off Ms Daniels after Mr Trump took office.
Cohen said some reimbursement checks issued to him for the hush-money payments were signed by Mr Donald Trump Jr and the Trump Organisation chief financial officer, raising the possibility that the president’s son could be prosecuted for violating campaign finance laws.