WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s former personal lawyer told Congress on Wednesday that Trump knew ahead of time that WikiLeaks had emails damaging to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, and he testified that Trump is a “racist,” a “conman” and a “cheat.”
The hearing was expected to produce the most damning depiction to date of Trump’s campaign and business operations from a onetime member of the president’s inner circle. It is the latest step in Cohen’s evolution from legal fixer for the president — he once boasted he’d “take a bullet” for Trump — to a foe who has implicated him in federal campaign finance violations.
“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 that I chose to take part in concealing Mr. Trump’s illicit acts rather than listening to my own conscience. I am ashamed because I know what Mr. Trump is.”
Cohen’s claims that Trump had advance knowledge of the emails contradict the president’s assertions that he was in the dark, but it was not clear what evidence Cohen had to support the allegation or even how legally problematic it would be for Trump. Special counsel Robert Mueller has not suggested that mere awareness of WikiLeaks’ plans, as Trump confidant Roger Stone is purported to have had, is by itself a crime.
Cohen Said Trump Did Not Directly Tell Him to Lie
Underscoring the deeply partisan nature of the proceedings, Democrats on the House Oversight and Reform Committee lifted an earlier restriction that the hearing not delve into Russia, while Republicans tried unsuccessfully to block the hearing as it got underway, on grounds that Cohen had not provided his opening statement long enough in advance.
The committee’s top Republican, Rep. Jim Jordan, of Ohio, sought early on to undermine Cohen’s credibility by calling him a “fraudster, cheat” and “a convicted felon.”
“Certainly it’s the first time a convicted perjurer has been brought back to be a star witness at a hearing,” Jordan said.
Cohen said that “in his way, he was telling me to lie.” He added that lawyers for Trump had “reviewed and edited” the statement in which Cohen falsely said a proposal for a Trump Tower in Moscow had been abandoned in January 2016. Cohen has since said he continued pursuing the project for Trump for months after that.
Trump, at a Vietnam hotel before a planned meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and unable to ignore the drama playing out thousands of miles away, lashed out at Cohen on Twitter, saying his lawyer “did bad things unrelated to Trump” and “is lying in order to reduce his prison time.”
WikiLeaks Released Thousands of Emails
A judge already has set Cohen’s sentence, and Cohen’s cooperation will have no bearing on that term. Cohen, ahead of his appearance, said Tuesday that the American people could decide “exactly who is telling the truth” when he testified before the House committee.
Trump responded by saying “wouldn’t that be great,” Cohen said.
That month, WikiLeaks released thousands of emails hacked from the Democratic National Committee’s server.
“A lot of people have asked me about whether Mr. Trump knew about the release of the hacked Democratic National Committee emails ahead of time,” Cohen said in the prepared testimony. “The answer is yes.”
Cohen said he does not have direct evidence that Trump colluded with the Russian government during the election, but that he has “suspicions.” Of a meeting in Trump Tower between campaign advisers, including Trump’s oldest son, and a Russian lawyer, Cohen said that Trump had frequently told him that Donald Trump Jr. “had the worst judgment of anyone in the world” and he “would never set up any meeting of any significance alone — and certainly not without checking with his father.”
Republicans Expected to Attempt to Discredit Cohen
Cohen, once Trump’s loyal attorney, has turned on his former boss and cooperated with Mueller’s Russia investigation. He begins a three-year prison sentence in May after pleading guilty to lying to Congress in 2017 and committing campaign finance violations while working for Trump.
He met with the Senate intelligence committee for more than nine hours behind closed doors on Tuesday. Cohen said afterward that he appreciated the opportunity to “clear the record and tell the truth” to the panel after acknowledging he lied to the committee in 2017.
It was the first of three days of congressional appearances for Cohen. After the public hearing, he will appear privately before the House intelligence panel Thursday.
Republicans were expected to aggressively attempt to discredit Cohen, given that he has acknowledged lying previously. White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said Tuesday it was “laughable that anyone would take a convicted liar like Cohen at his word, and pathetic to see him given yet another opportunity to spread his lies.”
Gaetz, a Trump ally who talks to the president frequently, is not a member of the committee that was questioning Cohen.
Cohen Pleaded Guilty to Campaign Finance Violations
Democrats have been alternately suspicious of Cohen and eager to hear what he has to say. Sen. Mark Warner, the intelligence panel’s top Democrat, suggested after Tuesday’s interview that Cohen had provided important information.
“Two years ago when this investigation started I said it may be the most important thing I am involved in in my public life in the Senate, and nothing I’ve heard today dissuades me from that view,” Warner said.
Federal prosecutors in New York have said Trump directed Cohen to arrange the payments to buy the silence of porn actress Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal in the run-up to the 2016 campaign. Cohen told a judge that he agreed to cover up Trump’s “dirty deeds” out of “blind loyalty.”
Cohen also said he will present the committee with a copy of the check Trump wrote from his personal bank account after he became president to reimburse him for the hush money payments. He claimed he has other exhibits as well, including some financial statements.
On the matter of racism, Cohen said the president made racist comments “disparaging African-Americans, saying at one point that black people would never vote for him because they were too stupid.”