WASHINGTON — Michael Cohen painted a harsh picture of President Donald Trump in a contentious House hearing Wednesday, calling him a “racist,” a “con man” and a “cheat,” while accusing him of criminal behavior and lying to advance his business and political interests.
In a dramatic opening statement, Cohen accused Trump of being part of a “criminal scheme” as president in writing personal checks to reimburse him for paying off a porn actress shortly before the 2016 election for her silence about her claims of an affair with Trump.
Cohen also said Trump implicitly told him to lie about his continued pursuit of a proposed Trump Tower in Moscow as he ran for president, and that Trump knew in advance from his adviser, Roger Stone, about WikiLeaks' plan to drop hacked Democratic emails.
And the Long Island-born former lawyer described his former boss as someone who fixed a charity auction, threatened his former schools to keep his academic record secret and initially ran for president as a “marketing opportunity” to build his brand and make money.
“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 told the Oversight and Reform Committee. “He is a racist. He is a con man. And he is a cheat.”
Facing hostile Republicans attacking his credibility and Democrats eager to hear about what Cohen described as Trump's misdeeds, Cohen, 52, drew on his decadelong work as a lawyer and fixer for Trump in a bid for redemption before he goes to prison in May for lying to Congress.
But Cohen said he knows of no direct evidence that Trump or his campaign colluded with Russia, though he said he has his suspicions. And he said he is still cooperating with prosecutors in the Southern District of New York on continuing investigations regarding Trump.
Cohen pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about the Moscow project in a case brought by the special prosecutor and to campaign finance and other violations for paying hush money to porn actress Stormy Daniels in a case brought by federal prosecutors in Manhattan.
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the committee chair, said Cohen's testimony is "deeply disturbing" and raises "grave questions about the legality of President Donald Trump's actions.” Despite his past lying, the American public should watch Cohen and “make their own judgment,” Cummings said.
From the start, Cohen clashed repeatedly with Republicans who berated him and his appearance before the committee, usually over what he thought were their factual errors in depicting his finances.
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), the ranking committee member, ripped Cummings for holding a hearing for Cohen, "the guy who was going to prison in two months for lying to Congress."
Jordan and other Republicans hammered away at Cohen for his past lies on his taxes and to financial institutions for his own benefit, told him he was getting revenge on Trump for not offering him a White House job and accused him of seeking lucrative book and movie deals.
Jordan also accused Democrats of allowing Cohen's attorney, former Clinton lawyer Lanny Davis, to orchestrate the hearing.
Trump, in a tweet before the hearing began, downplayed Cohen's role as his lawyer and attacked him and his motives.
"He was just disbarred by the State Supreme Court for lying & fraud. He did bad things unrelated to Trump. He is lying to reduce his prison time," Trump tweeted. He added, "Using Crooked's lawyer!"
Cohen implicated Trump in the circumstances of the two crimes to which he pleaded guilty and in knowing that Stone, his longtime adviser, was in communication with WikiLeaks about hacked Democratic National Committee emails.
“Mr. Trump knew from Roger Stone in advance about the WikiLeaks drop of emails,” Cohen said. He said he was with Trump in his office in July 2016 just days before the Democratic convention when a secretary put Stone on the speakerphone.
“Mr. Stone told Mr. Trump that he had just gotten off the phone with Julian Assange and that Mr. Assange told Mr. Stone that, within a couple of days, there would be a massive dump of emails that would damage Hillary Clinton’s campaign,” Cohen said.
“Mr. Trump responded by stating to the effect of, ‘Wouldn’t that be great,’ ” Cohen said. Wikileaks dropped the emails just days later.
Assange, who founded WikiLeaks, and Stone have denied that they talked. In January, Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted Stone on charges of lying, obstruction of justice and witness tampering.
Cohen admitted Trump did not directly tell him to lie to Congress and say the Moscow project had ended in January 2016 when it went on for months longer. Trump told him in "code."
"In conversations we had during the campaign, at the same time I was actively negotiating in Russia for him, 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," Cohen said. "In his way, he was telling me to lie."
He added, "You need to know that Mr. Trump's personal lawyers reviewed and edited my statement to Congress about the timing of the Moscow Tower negotiations before I gave it."
By the end of the hearing, Democrats increasingly focused on the hush money payment. Asked if the president broke the law in that arrangement, Cummings said, “Looking at the checks and listening to Mr. Cohen, it appears he did.”
Cohen said Trump directed him to use his home equity line to pay the $130,000 wire transfer to Stefanie Clifford, whose stage name is Stormy Daniels, and reimbursed him later.
“I am providing a copy of a $35,000 check that President Donald Trump personally signed from his personal bank account on August 1, 2017 — when he was president — pursuant to the cover-up, which was the basis of my guilty plea, to reimburse me,” Cohen said.
"Other checks to reimburse me for the hush money payments were signed by Donald Trump Junior and Allen Weisselberg," who is the Trump Organization's chief financial officer, he said.
He said Trump sent him 11 checks throughout the year. Cohen also said Trump told him to tell a reporter in February 2018 that Trump had no knowledge of the hush money payments.
Cohen also accused Trump of using a straw bidder to buy a portrait of the president at an Art Hamptons Event, to ensure it would go for the highest price in the auction, and then repaid that “fake bidder” the $60,000 through the Trump Foundation.
Cohen said Trump ordered him to write letters to his high school, colleges and the College Board, threatening legal action if they ever released his grades or SAT scores
And Cohen repeated the comments he made to Vanity Fair last fall about Trump’s use of “racist” language, including that black people would be “too dumb” to vote for him.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) brought forward Lynne Patton, a black woman who has worked with the Trump family and now is the New York and New Jersey administrator for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Meadows said Patton could recall no racist comments by Trump.
Cohen also said Trump would inflate his estimate of his wealth to get on the Forbes list of the wealthy, but deflate it to reduce his taxes. Cohen gave the committee Trump financial statements from 2011 to 2013 that showed Trump inflated his net worth by $4 billion to get a loan to buy the Buffalo Bills, the Buffalo News reported.
Cohen acknowledged he hoped to have his three-year prison sentence reduced. And even though it would be highly unlikely, Cohen also said, "I have never asked for, nor would I accept, a pardon from Mr. Trump.”