WASHINGTON — Michael Cohen told Congress Wednesday that President Donald Trump knew a longtime adviser was communicating with WikiLeaks about Democratic emails and implicitly told Cohen to lie about a proposed Trump Tower in Moscow in 2016.
Cohen accused Trump of being part of a “criminal scheme” as president in 2017 by writing personal checks to reimburse him for paying a porn actress $130,000 shortly before the 2016 election for her silence about her claims of an affair with Trump.
“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 said in his opening statement. “He is a racist. He is a con man. He is a cheat.”
The televised appearance of Cohen, 52, the former lawyer and fixer for Trump, at a contentious and potentially explosive hearing of the House Oversight and Reform Committee drew a wide television audience, including Trump while he is in Vietnam meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
The hearing began with fireworks as Republicans moved to postpone the hearing because Cohen delivered his opening statement and documents to the committee late Tuesday and early Wednesday, later than the 24 hours ahead of time required. Democrats voted to table the motion.
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the committee chairman, said Cohen's testimony is "deeply disturbing" and raises "grave questions about the legality of President Donald Trump's actions." Cummings conceded that Cohen has lied repeatedly in the past, but still should be heard by the American people.
"We are in the search for truth. They can watch Mr. Cohen's testimony and make their own judgment," Cummings said.
But Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), the ranking committee member, ripped Cummings for having as his first witness in his first hearing Cohen — "the guy who was going to prison in two months for lying to Congress." He accused Democrats of allowing Cohen's attorney — former Clinton lawyer Lanny Davis — to orchestrate the hearing.
In a tweet before the hearing began, Trump 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 must overcome lawmakers' deep skepticism about his ability to tell the truth after a federal judge sentenced him to 3 years in prison after he pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about the Moscow project and to campaign finance and other violations for paying hush money to porn actress Stormy Daniels.
Cummings said the hearing would not include the investigation of whether Trump or his campaign worked with Russia, but that the committee could ask about his testimony by Cohen that he has no direct knowledge that Trump, or his campaign colluded with Russia, though he said he has his “suspicions.”
Instead, Cohen implicated Trump in the circumstances of the two crimes to which he pleaded guilty and in knowing that his longtime adviser Roger Stone was in communication with WikiLeaks about making public hacked Democratic National Committee emails.
“Mr. Trump knew from Roger Stone in advance about the WikiLeaks drop of emails,” Cohen said in his statement in which 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 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. Assange founded WikiLeaks.
“Mr. Trump responded by stating to the effect of ‘wouldn’t that be great,’ ” Cohen said.
Stone has denied that such a conversation took place. In January, special counsel Robert Mueller indicted Stone on charges of lying, obstruction of justice and witness tampering.
In addressing his lying to Congress, Cohen admitted Trump did not directly tell him to lie about the Moscow project ending in January 2016 when it went on for months longer, but Trump did so in his own way.
"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 not 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."
And he said that Trump never thought he would win even a primary, much less the presidency, but instead used his campaign to market himself and build his wealth. He said Trump considered his campaign to be the 'greatest infomercial in political history.'"
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 later reimbursed him.
“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. He said Trump sent him 11 checks throughout the year.
Cohen suggested, without definite proof, that he saw Donald Trump Jr. confer with his father in his office about the Trump Tower meeting between the Trump campaign and Russians that has drawn scrutiny from Mueller and congressional investigators.
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 release his grades or SAT scores.
And Cohen repeated the comments he made to Vanity Fair last fall about Trump’s use of “racist” language.
He also said Trump would inflate his estimate of his wealth to get on the Forbes list of the wealthy and deflate it to reduce his taxes. Cohen gave the committee Trump financial statements from 2011 to 2013 that Trump sent to Deutsche Bank to inquire about a loan to buy the Buffalo Bills.
All these claims will be hotly contested by Republicans, many of them outright skeptical about Cohen’s ability to tell the truth.
Congress has keen interest in what Cohen has to say, scheduling three hearings with him this week. The Senate Intelligence Committee grilled Cohen behind closed doors Tuesday, and the House Intelligence Committee will hold a closed session with him Thursday.
Clashes are expected, since the House Oversight and Reform Committee includes firebrands from the right and left among its 42 members.
A small flare burst Tuesday when Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), who is not on the panel, asked Cohen in a tweet Tuesday if his wife and father-in-law know about his “girlfriends” — an apparent threat ahead of his testimony.
Earlier Tuesday, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), one of several conservative Freedom Caucus members on the committee, promised tough questions for Cohen.
“Time and time again he’s not told the truth,” Meadows said on Fox News. “There’s a number of questions that still remain in terms of potential criminal offenses that Michael Cohen may have committed that I believe will come out tomorrow.”
But Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), among the left-leaning committee members that include Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-Brooklyn), said in a phone interview that Cohen should have a chance to tell his story.
For Republicans, Raskin said, “The problem with Michael Cohen is not that he’s lying — it’s that he’s stopped lying.”