Cohen tells Congress his loyalty to Trump has cost him his job, family, freedom
President's former lawyer says he threatened or intimidated people hundreds of times on behalf of his boss
Michael Cohen, stating assertively he is "no longer" Donald Trump's fixer, told the House of Representatives oversight committee on Wednesday the U.S. president knew ahead of time that WikiLeaks had emails damaging to the presidential campaign of his rival Hillary Clinton.
But he also said he had no "direct evidence" that Trump or his aides colluded with Russia to get him elected, the primary question of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation.
In testimony over the course of seven hours, Trump's former personal lawyer characterized his former boss as a "racist," a "con man" and a "cheat." Under questioning, Cohen also said he was aware of other illegal acts by his former boss, but didn't elaborate, citing current investigations.
The hearing mostly proceeded along two separate tracks, with Democrats focusing on allegations against Trump while Republicans sought to undermine Cohen's credibility and the proceeding itself.
As Republicans blasted him as a convicted liar, Cohen sought to blunt the attacks by repeatedly acknowledging his own failings. He called himself a "fool," warned lawmakers of the perils of blind loyalty to a leader undeserving of it and pronounced himself ashamed of what he'd done to protect Trump.
Cohen told the lawmakers that Trump implicitly told him to lie about a Moscow real estate project. Cohen has pleaded guilty to previously lying to Congress about the project, which he says Trump knew about as Cohen was negotiating with Russia during the 2016 election campaign.
Cohen said Trump did not directly tell him to lie, but "he would look me in the eye and tell me there's no business in Russia and then go out and lie to the American people by saying the same thing."
"In his way, he was telling me to lie," Cohen said.
He elaborated under questioning later: "[Trump] doesn't give you questions, he doesn't give you orders, he speaks in code, and I understand the code because I've been around him for a decade."
Cohen said in addition to the president, Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow was present for a discussion in 2017 about the ultimately misleading testimony about the Russian project. But he surprisingly couldn't specify to Democrat John Sarbanes what edits may have made been to that testimony, saying he'd have to review the document again.
'Mesmerized' by Trump
As recently as late 2017, Cohen was describing himself to a reporter as "the guy who would take a bullet for the president."
But in his testimony, he apologized for his actions, claiming to be "mesmerized" by Trump's aura.
"I am ashamed that I chose to take part in concealing Mr. Trump's illicit acts rather than listening to my own conscience."
Cohen has co-operated with special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation and begins a three-year prison sentence in May after he pleaded guilty to lying to Congress in 2017 and committing campaign finance violations while he was working for Trump. Cohen testified he met with Mueller's team seven times.
Payments had Trump 'sign-off': Cohen
The campaign finance violations pertain to payments to two women who allege they had affairs with Trump.
Federal prosecutors in New York have said Trump directed Cohen to arrange the payments to buy the silence of adult film star 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." He later said he was also pressured to lie to Melania Trump about the hush money payments.
Cohen said he was involved in "several" of these so-called catch-and-kill episodes without elaborating, under questioning from New York Democrat Carolyn Maloney.
He later said one involved an allegation that Trump had fathered a child with a former employee, but that to his knowledge the child does not exist.
Repeating a claim he's made in previous media interviews after pleading guilty, Cohen rejected the possibility that he freelanced without his employer's consent.
"There was nothing that happened at the Trump Organization … that didn't go through Mr. Trump with his approval and sign-off, as in the case of the payments," he said.
Cohen presented the committee with a copy of the cheque Trump wrote from his personal bank account after he became president to reimburse him for the hush money payments. Cohen asserted the signature of Donald Trump Jr. is also on one of the cheques.
Republican Greg Steube of Florida said there was nothing other than Cohen's word to tie those cheques to the women alleging affairs. Steube made the claim despite the fact that the president and his advocates in late 2018 referred to them as "simple" private transactions.
Trump, Stone spoke about Wiki: Cohen
On the subject of WikiLeaks, Cohen says he was in Trump's office in July 2016 when his longtime adviser Roger Stone called Trump. He says Trump put Stone on speakerphone and Stone said that "within a couple of days, there would be a massive dump of emails that would damage Hillary Clinton's campaign."
Trump responded by saying "wouldn't that be great," according to Cohen.
"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. "The answer is yes."
Stone disputed that account Wednesday.
Black people 'too stupid'
Cohen also said Trump made racist comments about African-Americans, saying at one point that black people would never vote for him because they were "too stupid." Cohen says that he and Trump once drove through a struggling neighbourhood in Chicago and that Trump remarked that only black people could live that way.
Cohen allowed, under questioning from North Carolina Republican Mark Meadows, that he never recorded any conversations in which Trump was alleged to have made racist remarks.
Trump feared tax audit
Cohen also described how Trump repeatedly devalued his business holdings — such as his golf courses — by millions of dollars in order to pay less tax on them. He also said that the reason Trump has refused to turn over his financial records — something all modern-day presidents have done — was because he didn't want "think-tanks that are tax experts" to go through them and "start ripping them to pieces" and have him end up in an audit.
"Could you presume from that statement that he wasn't under audit?" asked Democratic Rep. Jimmy Gomez.
"I presume he is not under audit," Cohen said.
Trump has repeatedly said that he could not release his tax returns because he was under an IRS audit.
Republicans seize on Cohen lies
Republicans may have scored points with Trump supporters by getting Cohen to reiterate that he has never been to Prague. It is a claim of the controversial so-called Steele dossier that Republicans and Trump have tried to discredit that Cohen met with Kremlin-linked officials in August 2016 in the Czech Republic.
Jim Jordan of Ohio seized on the fact the 52-year-old was found to have avoided paying taxes for one of his personal businesses outside of his advocacy for Trump.
After Cohen was first investigated, corporations such as AT&T and Novartis confirmed they had made payments to Cohen, who was not a registered lobbyist.
In his closing statement, Cohen told the committee that his loyalty to Trump has cost him his job, his family and his freedom. And he's worried the country will suffer a similar fate unless people stop supporting Trump.
And he said part of why he agreed to appear before the committee was because he fears that if Trump loses the election in 2020, "there will never be a peaceful transition of power."
In a related development, Trump ally Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz, came under investigation Wednesday by the Florida state bar for a tweet critics said was meant to intimidate Cohen the night before his public testimony on Capitol Hill.
"Anytime the words or actions of a Florida lawyer result in complaints, the Florida bar will fully investigate those complaints," spokesperson Francine Walker said in a statement.
Gaetz later apologized, saying it was not his aim to threaten but to "create context" around Cohen's testimony.
Trump also takes to Twitter
Trump, in Hanoi for a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on Wednesday, took to Twitter to distance himself from Cohen.
Michael Cohen was one of many lawyers who represented me (unfortunately). He had other clients also. He was just disbarred by the State Supreme Court for lying & fraud. He did bad things unrelated to Trump. He is lying in order to reduce his prison time. Using Crooked’s lawyer!—@realDonaldTrump
Trump has derided Cohen for co-operating with prosecutors, a common development in the criminal justice system.
"It's called flipping and it almost should be illegal," Trump has said.
Cohen said Wednesday he wouldn't ask for, or accept, a pardon offer from Trump.
He testified for the second of three consecutive days, sandwiched between closed-door sessions with the Senate and House intelligence committees.
With files from The Associated Press and Reuters