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.
Trump’s former personal lawyer also characterized his former boss as a “racist,” a “conman” 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.
Cohen said Wednesday on Capitol Hill that Trump also implicitly told him to lie about a Moscow real estate project. Cohen has pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about the project, which he says Trump knew about as Cohen was negotiating with Russia during the 2016 election.
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.
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 ‘signoff’: 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 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 was freelancing 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 signoff, 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.”
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, as all presidents have before him, 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 was the first Republican to question Cohen, and 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.
Meadows assailed Cohen for personally profiting from those interactions, as well as contacts with officials from Kazakhstan.
“You’re saying all of that was paid to you just because you’re a nice guy?” asked Meadows.
Cohen was disbarred as a lawyer in New York this week, a fact acknowledged by Cohen and frequently mentioned by several Republican questioners.
Trump downplays relationship
Cohen, deputy finance chair of the Republican National Committee until June 2018, two months after investigators searched his offices, at one point took the Republicans to task for not asking any questions about alleged misdeeds by Trump.
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.
Cohen said in his opening statement he wanted to stress he has no knowledge of Trump colluding with Russia. He also claimed that Trump never expected to be president and was promoting his brand during the campaign, which may undercut arguments that Trump was actively in a conspiracy with Russia.
Cohen, responding to Illinois Democrat Raja Krishnamoorthi, said he’s aware of other alleged illegal acts committed by Trump that he can’t specify due to ongoing investigations by Southern District of New York officials.
Trump, in Hanoi for a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on Wednesday, took to Twitter to distance himself from Cohen.
Despite Trump’s protestations, the relationship between the men stretches back until 2006, Cohen has said. Cohen acted as a spokesperson for Trump’s various pursuits prior to entering politics, including building purchases, the Trump-owned Miss Universe properties and Trump’s unsuccessful pursuit to own the NFL Buffalo Bills.
Cohen testified for the second of three consecutive days, sandwiched between closed-door sessions with the Senate and House intelligence committees.