US President Donald Trump‘s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen accused him of breaking the law while in office and said for the first time that Trump knew in advance about a WikiLeaks dump of stolen emails that hurt his 2016 election rival Hillary Clinton in the United States.
In a dramatic televised hearing in Congress on Wednesday, Cohen said Trump approved hush payments to cover up extra-marital sexual relationships in violation of campaign finance laws and signed a personal cheque for $35,000 in 2017 to reimburse Cohen for at least one of those payments.
Cohen, 52, was a close aide of Trump for years and his testimony could increase the legal and political pressure on the Republican president, but he did not appear to reveal a “smoking gun” that would sink his former boss.
Cohen told a House of Representatives committee he had no direct evidence that Trump or his campaign colluded with Moscow during the election campaign.
Possible collusion is a key theme of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, which has dogged the president during his two years in office. Trump has repeatedly denied the allegation as has the Kremlin.
Assailing the president as a “con man” and a “cheat”, Cohen said Trump knew ahead of time about WikiLeaks’ release of emails in 2016 that undermined Democrat Clinton’s presidential bid.
He also said Trump directed negotiations for a real estate project in Moscow during the White House race even as he publicly said he had no business interests in Russia.
“I wouldn’t use the word colluding,” Cohen said of Trump’s dealings with Russia, adding that there was “something odd” about the president’s good relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The White House had no comment on Cohen’s testimony but Trump earlier on Wednesday accused his former employee of lying.
“He did bad things unrelated to Trump. He is lying in order to reduce his prison time,” Trump wrote on Twitter from Vietnam, where he was meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Cohen warns Republicans
Republican politicians at the hearing attempted to undermine Cohen, portraying him as an irredeemable liar who had benefited from financial crimes he pleaded guilty to last year, and saying the hearing was an opening gambit in a Democratic push to impeach Trump.
“I don’t believe Michael Cohen is capable of telling the truth,” said Republican Representative James Comer.
Mark Meadows, a Republican who repeatedly challenged Cohen’s credibility during the hearing, said that he doesn’t know if the hearing “did anything to advance transparency”.
It was a lot of normal narratives that have been out there for a long time,” Meadows told Al Jazeera after the hearing.
Cohen was mostly calm and contrite under the heated questioning from Republicans and cautioned them not to make the same mistake he did in protecting Trump.
“I did the same thing as you’re doing now, for 10 years. I protected Mr Trump for 10 years,” Cohen told the committee hearing. “The more people that follow Mr Trump as I did blindly are going to suffer the same consequences that I am suffering.”
Cohen was one of Trump’s closest aides and fiercest defenders, working with him on business and personal deals for a decade.
But he turned against him last year and is cooperating with prosecutors after pleading guilty to tax evasion, bank fraud and campaign-finance violations. He was sentenced to three years in prison. That sentence is set to begin in May. Democrats took control of the House after last year’s midterm elections and called on Cohen to give evidence.
“I am ashamed because I know what Mr Trump is. He is a racist. He is a con man. He is a cheat,” Cohen said during his opening statement.
Hush money payments
He said he was directed by Trump in 2016 to make a $130,000 payment to adult film star Stormy Daniels to cover up an extra-marital affair.
That payment could amount to an illegal in-kind contribution by Cohen to the campaign because it exceeded donation limits and was not disclosed in Trump’s campaign finance reports, legal experts say.
Trump has denied having sex with Daniels and said the payments to her and another woman who claimed an affair were not illegal.
Cohen turned over to the committee a copy of a $35,000 cheque Trump signed on August 1, 2017, one in a series he said was to reimburse him for paying off Daniels after Trump took office.
Cohen said Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr, co-signed another cheque, again for $35,000. A lawyer for Donald Jr did not respond to a request for comment, but Donald Jr posted several tweets during Wednesday’s hearing, accusing Cohen of pleading for a White House job and saying he “just wants to be famous”.
Speaking to reporters after the first part of Cohen’s testimony, Democrat Ted Lieu said the documents and Cohen’s testimony regarding the hush money payments is a “pretty big deal”.
Lieu said that Cohen was an “effective witness” and that Cohen’s opening statement was “probably the most explosive part so far other than the documents”.
“It’s pretty clear that he lied in the past, but it’s pretty clear he is not lying today,” the Democrat told reporters. “It was very effective when he said he lied in the past to protect Donald Trump and he’s no longer protecting him.”
Cohen also said that he was aware of other possible illegal acts involving Trump that are being investigated by federal prosecutors in New York.
“A lot of information came out, a lot of new information, a lot of people to talk to, the investigation continues,” Democrat Carolyn Maloney told Al Jazeera after the hearing.
“The eyebrow-raising episode for me was when Mr Cohen said to the Republicans as they were attacking him, you are doing what I did for so many years, just sitting there protecting Mr Trump,” Maloney said.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if material that came out of this hearing gave federal prosecutors in New York more things to investigate. There were other allegations about certain things, the payments to Ms Daniels, it’s obvious a number of people were involved. Mr Trump signed the cheque and his son signed one of the cheque reimbursing Mr Cohen.”
‘Roger Stone told Trump about DNC emails’
The sweeping claims against Trump, from a man who once said he would take a bullet for his boss, come as Mueller appears to be close to completing his investigation into possible collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russian efforts to sway the vote.
Trump has repeatedly called the Mueller investigation a “witch-hunt”.
US officials have said the emails released by WikiLeaks were stolen by Russia as part of Moscow’s campaign of hacking and propaganda during the presidential race aimed at sowing discord in the US and harming Clinton.
Trump had previously denied knowing in advance about the release of the hacked Democratic National Committee (DNC) emails during the election.
Cohen said he was in Trump’s office in July 2016 when Roger Stone, a self-described “dirty trickster” and longtime political adviser to Trump, called the-then Republican presidential candidate.
Cohen said Stone told Trump he had been speaking with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who told him there would be a dump of emails within a couple of days that would damage Clinton’s campaign.
Wikileaks tweeted that Assange has “never had a telephone call with Roger Stone”.
The DNC emails drove a wedge between supporters of Clinton and her rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, Senator Bernie Sanders. Although Clinton won the nomination, that rift weakened her candidacy.
“Mr Cohen’s statement is untrue,” Stone wrote in an email, but did not specify which parts of the statement he meant.
Stone was indicted by Mueller on charges of lying to Congress about his communications with others related to WikiLeaks email dumps.
Cohen apologised for initially lying to Congress in 2017, when he said efforts to build a Trump skyscraper in Moscow had ceased by January 2016. He now says they continued through June 2016, during the height of the election campaign, and that Trump’s lawyers “reviewed and edited” those false statements to Congress.
Cohen said Trump on multiple occasions inquired about the Moscow real estate project while telling the public he had no business dealings in Russia.
“He lied about it because he never expected to win the election. He also lied about it because he stood to make hundreds of millions of dollars,” Cohen said.
During his closing remarks, Cohen said he feared Trump would not allow his successor to peacefully take control of the White House if he lost the 2020 presidential election.
“Given my experience working for Mr Trump, I fear that if he loses the election in 2020, there will never be a peaceful transition of power,” Cohen said.