WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s longtime lawyer and fixer accused him on Wednesday of an expansive pattern of lies and criminality, offering a damning portrayal of life inside the president’s orbit where he said advisers sacrificed integrity for proximity to power.
Michael D. Cohen, who represented Trump for a decade, told Congress that the president lied to the American public about business interests in Russia during the 2016 campaign and lied to reporters about stolen Democratic emails. Trump also told Cohen to lie about illegal hush payments to cover up alleged sexual indiscretions, the lawyer charged.
The allegations, aired at a daylong hearing before the House Oversight and Reform Committee, exposed a dark underside of Trump’s business and political worlds in the voice of one of the ultimate insiders. Perhaps no close associate of a president has turned on him in front of Congress in such dramatic fashion since John Dean testified against President Richard M. Nixon during the Watergate scandal.
“He is a racist. He is a con man. And he is a cheat,” Cohen said of the president. Cohen, who has pleaded guilty to lying under oath to Congress, among other crimes, said he did so to protect Trump. “I am not protecting Mr. Trump anymore,” he said.
But it remained unclear whether his testimony would change the political dynamics of a series of scandals that have already polarized Washington and the country and that could lead to an impeachment battle later this year.
Assailing Cohen as a proven liar, Republicans denounced the hearing as a “charade” and an “embarrassment for our country.” Democrats said Republicans “ran away from the truth” as they sought to defend a corrupt president who has employed “textbook mob tactics.”
As with so many other moments of the Trump era, the hearing seemed to be as much about partisan theater as fact-finding, with the two sides fixed in their views and unbending in their approach. Democrats and Republicans set forth their own conflicting narratives about the man who once served Trump, either as a dissembling disgruntled former employee trying to reduce his sentence or a fallen sinner who has realized his mistakes and is now trying to redeem himself by coming clean.
Through it all sat Cohen, 52, with dark circles under his eyes as he awaits a three-year prison term that begins this spring. Apologizing repeatedly to his family, Cohen described his 10 years working for Trump as a trip into a world of deceit in which the lawyer ignored his own conscience in order to get close to a magnetic person of power.
“Sitting here today, it seems unbelievable that I was so mesmerized by Donald Trump that I was willing to do things for him that I knew were absolutely wrong,” Cohen said. When he met Trump, he knew him as “a real estate giant” and “icon” at the center of the action. “Being around Mr. Trump was intoxicating,” he said.
In private business, Cohen said he rationalized Trump’s dishonesty as “trivial” but as president, he said, “I consider it significant and dangerous.”
Cohen said he had come to realize that he sacrificed his own ethics and was now seeking redemption for his own misdeeds. “The more people who follow Mr. Trump as I did blindly are going to suffer the same consequences that I’m suffering,” he said. “I lost it all.”
The hearing came while the president was halfway around the world in Vietnam for a meeting with North Korea’s leader. His family and advisers expressed anger at the timing of the hearing, arguing that Democrats were undercutting Trump in sensitive nuclear diplomacy for political gain.
The president’s re-election campaign organization dismissed Cohen as a convicted perjurer who should not be believed. “This is the same Michael Cohen who has admitted that he lied to Congress previously,” Kayleigh McEnany, the campaign’s national press secretary, said in a statement. “Why did they even bother to swear him in this time?”
Republicans on the committee aggressively challenged Cohen along the same lines. Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the ranking Republican, called Cohen a “fraudster, cheat, felon and, in two months, a federal inmate.”
Jordan questioned Cohen’s motives in assailing Trump’s character and actions, suggesting that the former lawyer was embittered because the new president did not bring him to Washington.
“You wanted to work in the White House — " Jordan said.
“No, sir,” Cohen replied.
“ — and didn’t get brought to the dance.”
“I did not want to go to the White House,” Cohen asserted.
Eric Trump, one of the president’s sons, took issue with that on Twitter. “Michael was lobbying EVERYONE to be ‘Chief of Staff,'” he wrote. “It was the biggest joke in the campaign and around the office. Did he just perjure himself again?”
The hearing drew enormous interest on Capitol Hill, where Democrats just last month took control of the House and are under enormous pressure from their liberal base to impeach Trump. The crowds were huge and the sense of drama palpable. Lawmakers of both parties sat rapt during Cohen’s 30-minute opening statement as he outlined his accusations.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., who threatened to reveal what he said were Cohen’s extramarital affairs on Twitter on Tuesday, showed up for the hearing, although he is not on the committee.
Cohen laid out a series of actions by Trump that bolster previous allegations and presented documents to corroborate his account, including copies of checks issued by the president or his trust that he said were reimbursements for $130,000 in hush payments Cohen made to Stormy Daniels, a pornographic film actress who alleged an affair with Trump.
Cohen said that Trump, as a candidate, initiated the hush payment plan and, while president, arranged for 11 checks reimbursing the lawyer “as part of a criminal scheme to violate campaign finance laws,” a crime to which Cohen has pleaded guilty.
After news reports about the payments in February 2018, Cohen told lawmakers, the president called him to discuss what the lawyer should say publicly about the scheme. Trump told him to say that the president “was not knowledgeable of these reimbursements and he wasn’t knowledgeable of” Cohen’s actions.
Democrats pressed Cohen on whether Trump provided false financial information to hide the hush payments. Trump’s annual personal financial disclosure statement in 2017 made no reference to reimbursing Cohen that year.
But the statement filed by Trump last year included a footnote indicating a repayment of $100,001 to $250,000 to Cohen, raising questions about whether the 2017 filing had improperly omitted the debt. While the 2018 statement did not specify the purpose of the payment, it was understood to refer to the hush payment.
“Why do you think the president did not provide the accurate information in his 2017 financial disclosure form?” Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y., asked Cohen. “What was he trying to hide?
Cohen said the goal of the payment was to prevent Daniels from telling her story. “That would have embarrassed the president and it would have interfered with the election,” he said.
Cohen told lawmakers that Trump personally monitored negotiations to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, asking about it “at least a half-dozen times” between January and June 2016 even while running for president.
“Mr. Trump knew of and directed the Trump Moscow negotiations throughout the campaign and lied about it,” Cohen said. “He lied about it because he never expected to win. He also lied about it because he stood to make hundreds of millions of dollars on the Moscow real estate project.”
In previous testimony before his prosecution by federal authorities, Cohen lied to Congress by saying the project was dropped by January 2016. Trump did not explicitly instruct him to lie, Cohen said, but through his actions he “made clear to me” that “he wanted me to lie” and the president’s lawyers reviewed and even edited Cohen’s false testimony to Congress.
Cohen said he had no “direct evidence that Trump or his campaign colluded with Russia.” But, he added, “I have my suspicions.”
He pointed to the June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower in which Donald Trump Jr., the candidate’s eldest son; Jared Kushner, his son-in-law; and Paul Manafort, the campaign chairman; met with visiting Russians after being told that they had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton from the Russian government.
The president has denied knowing about the meeting at the time, but Cohen cast doubt on that, saying he was in Trump’s office one day in June 2016 when Donald Jr. came in, went behind his father’s desk and, speaking in a low voice, said, “The meeting is all set.” The candidate, he said, replied, “OK, good. Let me know.”
Cohen said that might have referred to the Russia meeting because “Mr. Trump had frequently told me and others that his son Don Jr. had the worst judgment of anyone in the world” and that his son “would never set up any meeting of significance alone and certainly not without checking with his father.”
Cohen also recalled being in Trump’s office shortly before the Democratic National Convention in 2016 when Roger J. Stone Jr., a longtime adviser, called. Trump put him on speakerphone and Stone reported that he had just spoken with Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, who said “that within a couple of days there would be a massive dump of emails that would damage Hillary Clinton’s campaign.”
“Mr. Trump responded by stating to the effect of, ‘Wouldn’t that be great?'” Cohen said.
In an interview with The New York Times last month, Trump denied speaking with Stone about WikiLeaks and the emails. Stone has been charged with obstructing justice, making false statements and witness tampering
Cohen compared Trump to a mobster who inflated his net worth, rigged an art auction, frequently used racist language and threatened anyone who got in his way. Cohen estimated that he had threatened someone at Trump’s direction perhaps 500 times over 10 years, either berating a “nasty reporter” or warning of lawsuits.
He provided several documents to the committee. He offered what he said were financial statements that Trump gave to institutions such as Deutsche Bank and said the president inflated or deflated his assets when it served his purposes. He also offered letters he wrote at Trump’s direction to the president’s high school, colleges and the College Board threatening them not to release his grades during the 2016 campaign.
Cohen said Trump did not run for president to make the country great, calling it the “greatest infomercial in political history” for his business. “He never expected to win the primary,” he said. “He never expected to win the general election. The campaign, for him, was always a marketing opportunity.”
The former lawyer also described racist conversations in which Trump asked if he could “name a country run by a black person that wasn’t a shithole” and, while driving through a struggling neighborhood, remarked that only African-Americans could live that way. “He told me that black people would never vote for him because they were too stupid,” Cohen said.
As the day progressed, Republicans pressed their argument that Cohen was not to be believed. They argued that he lied even in signing a committee form in which he did not disclose payments he received from a bank in Kazakhstan.
“You’re a pathological liar,” charged Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona.
“Are you referring to me or the president?” Cohen retorted.
Cohen suggested that the panel’s Republicans were falling into the trap that he did, trading their honor for a president who did not deserve it.
“I did the same thing that you’re doing now for 10 years,” he said. “I protected Mr. Trump for 10 years.”