WASHINGTON — In a damning depiction of Donald Trump, the president's former lawyer on Wednesday cast him as a racist and conman who used his inner circle to cover up politically damaging allegations about sex and lied about his business interests in Russia throughout the campaign that sent him to the White House.
Michael Cohen, who pleaded guilty last year to lying to Congress, testified that Trump had advance knowledge and embraced the news that emails damaging to Hillary Clinton would be released. But he also said he has no "direct evidence" that the Trump presidential campaign colluded with Russia.
Shaking off incessant criticism from Republicans anxious to paint him as a felon and liar, Cohen became the first Trump insider to pull back the curtain on his version of the inner workings of Trump's political and business operations. He likened the president to a "mobster" who demands blind loyalty from underlings and expects them to lie on his behalf to conceal information and protect him — even if it means breaking the law.
"I am not protecting Mr. Trump anymore," he declared.
In one revelation, Cohen said that prosecutors in New York are investigating conversations Trump or his advisers had with him after his hotel room was raided for documents by the FBI last April.
He was asked by a Democratic congressman about the last contact he had had with Trump or any agent representing the president.
Cohen said that happened about two months after his hotel room was raided by the FBI. But he declined to provide more specific details on grounds that the matter was under current investigation by federal prosecutors.
His appearance marked 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.
The matter-of-fact testimony about hush money payments and furtive Russian meetings unfolded as Trump met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, offering stark TV counterprogramming to the president's official duties. At a Vietnam hotel and unable to ignore the drama thousands of miles away, Trump lashed out on Twitter, saying Cohen "did bad things unrelated to Trump" and "is lying in order to reduce his prison time."
Cohen will soon report to prison for a three-year sentence. At the same time, he is seen as a vital witness for federal prosecutors because of his proximity to the president during key episodes under investigation.
He is the first of six Trump aides charged in special counsel Robert Mueller's Trump-Russia investigation to testify publicly about crimes committed during the 2016 campaign and in the months that followed.
Cohen gave lawmakers his first-person account of how he arranged hush money payments to a porn actress and a Playboy model who said they had sex with the president. He testified that he was present for conversations in which Trump denigrated blacks as "too stupid" to vote for him. And he said he overheard Trump confidant Roger Stone telling the candidate that WikiLeaks would dump damaging information about Clinton.
"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 is not clear how legally problematic that could be for Trump. Special counsel 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 also suggested that Trump implicitly told him to lie about a Moscow real estate project. Cohen has admitted lying about the project, which he says Trump knew about as Cohen was negotiating with Russia during the 2016 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."
Underscoring the deeply partisan nature of the proceedings, Republicans on the House Oversight and Reform Committee sought unsuccessfully to block the hearing as it got underway on grounds that Cohen had not provided his opening statement long enough in advance. Republicans repeatedly pointed out that Cohen had already pleaded guilty to lying to Congress and argued that the sole purpose of the hearing was to bring Trump down.
The committee's top Republican, Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, called Cohen 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 called himself a "fool."
Rep. Elijah Cummings, the committee's Democratic chairman, sternly reminded Cohen of his past lies and warned him at the outset: "We will not tolerate lying to this Congress."
On WikiLeaks, Cohen said he was in Trump's office in July 2016 when Stone, a longtime adviser, telephoned Trump. Trump put Stone on speakerphone and Stone told him that he had communicated with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and that "within a couple of days, there would be a massive dump of emails that would damage Hillary Clinton's campaign," according to Cohen.
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. "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."
"I wouldn't use the word 'colluding.' Was there something odd about the back-and-forth praise with President Putin?" Cohen said. "Yes, but I'm not really sure I can answer the question about collusion."
Concerning 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."
Cohen, once Trump's loyal attorney, has turned on his former boss and cooperated with Mueller's Russia investigation. He begins a prison sentence in May after pleading guilty to lying to Congress and committing campaign finance violations while working for Trump.
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 has said he acted out of "blind loyalty."
He said he was presenting the committee with a copy of the check Trump wrote from his personal bank account after he became president to reimburse Cohen for the hush money payments. He claimed he had 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."
He said that Trump once privately confided to him that, despite his public explanation of a medical deferment from the Vietnam War, he never had any intention of fighting there.
"You think I'm stupid, I wasn't going to Vietnam," Cohen quoted Trump as saying.
"I find it ironic, President Trump, that you are in Vietnam right now," Cohen said.