This story will be updated as the hearing continues
WASHINGTON – Michael Cohen delivered a blistering account of his dealings as President Donald Trump’s longtime attorney Wednesday, casting his former boss as “a con man” and “racist’ while tying the White House more directly than ever to multiple investigations that have shadowed Trump’s presidency.
Reading from a written statement to a House committee, Cohen asserted that Trump knew in advance that WikiLeaks planned to release stolen emails damaging to political rival Hillary Clinton; that he personally reimbursed Cohen for an illegal hush-money payment to a porn star; and that the president indirectly encouraged him to lie to Congress about his pursuit of a potentially lucrative Trump Tower development in Moscow, even as Trump repeatedly denied any business interests in Russia throughout the 2016 campaign.
Cohen also suggested that Trump knew in advance of a June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower, headed by Donald Trump Jr., in which a Russian lawyer promised to provide damaging information on Clinton.
“I recalled Don Jr. leaning over to his father and speaking in a low voice, which I could clearly hear, and saying: ‘The meeting is all set.’ I remember Mr. Trump, saying, ‘Ok, good…let me know.”
Cohen, however, could not pinpoint exactly when he saw the interaction between father and son. Nor did he elaborate on whether the two could have been referring to another unrelated meeting.
The series of events described by Cohen, who is set to begin a three-year prison term for pleading guilty to a string of financial crimes and lying to Congress, are at the heart of several ongoing criminal investigations, including Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller’s inquiry into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.
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“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 conscience. I am ashamed because I know what Mr. Trump is. He is a racist. He is a con man. He is a cheat.”
Cohen acknowledged his past criminal conduct, and claimed that his testimony represented a clean break from his boss, whose actions Cohen described as akin to those of a mob boss.
“I have done bad things, but I am not a bad man. I have fixed things, but I am no longer your fixer, Mr. Trump,” Cohen said, adding that he would not seek or accept a pardon should one be offered by the president.
In addition to his written testimony, Cohen arrived at the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing Wednesday armed with documents that appeared to back up some of his claims, including a $35,000 check signed by Trump. Cohen said the personal check, signed during the first year of his presidency, was one of 11 “installment” payments to reimburse him for the hush money payment to adult film star Stormy Daniels, who claims to have had an affair with Trump.
Other installment checks were signed by Donald Trump Jr., and Trump Organization finance chief Allen Weisselberg, Cohen said.
Federal prosecutors in New York alleged that Trump’s private business reimbursed Cohen $130,000 for his payment to Daniels, added another $130,000 to cover his taxes, and paid him a $60,000 bonus on top of that, then disguised the payments as legal bills.
Cohen said Trump orchestrated the “cover-up” and directed him to lie about the transactions, even to the president’s wife.
“Lying to the First Lady is one of my biggest regrets,” Cohen said, as camera shutters clicked in unison. “She is a kind, good person. I respect her greatly, and she did not deserve that.”
Trump didn’t even wait for Cohen to begin his testimony before firing back from Vietnam, where he was meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
“Michael Cohen was one of many lawyers who represented me (unfortunately),” Trump tweeted from Hanoi, site of his second summit with Kim. “He had other clients also.”
Noting that Cohen has been disbarred, the president said “he did bad things unrelated to Trump,” and “is lying in order to reduce his prison time.”
Cohen’s testimony, however, went beyond alleged Trump’s business and campaign dealings to describe his former boss a “a racist.”
Publicly, Cohen said, Trump courted white supremacists and bigots.
“In private, he was even worse,” the attorney said. “He once asked if I could name a country run by a black person that wasn’t a ‘shithole.’ … While we were once driving through a struggling neighborhood in Chicago, he commented that only black people could live that way. And he told me that black people would never vote for him because they were too stupid. And yet I continued to work for him.”
The House committee’s chairman, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., said lawmakers planned to ask Cohen, who worked as a lawyer and problem-solver for Trump, for details on everything from Trump’s finances to the operation of his private business. They plan to scrutinize whether Trump complied with tax laws and campaign finance regulations.
Cohen has confessed to committing crimes for Trump’s benefit, and he came ready to unload on the president Wednesday.
Trump’s defenders were equally ready for fireworks. Hours before Cohen was due to testify, one of the president’s staunchest defenders in Congress, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., asked him on Twitter whether his “wife & father-in-law know about your girlfriends?” He mused: “I wonder if she’ll remain faithful when you’re in prison. She’s about to learn a lot.”
On Wednesday, Republican members sought to postpone the hearing, claiming that Cohen had not provided a copy of his testimony in a timely manner. The effort was derailed, but the fight to discredit Trump’s former lawyer went on.
Ohio Rep. James Jordan, the panel’s ranking Republican, seized on Cohen’s past false statements to Congress.
“Here we go,” Jordan told the packed gallery. “This might be the first time someone convicted of lying to Congress has been brought back” to testify so quickly.
“We are legitimizing dishonesty,” Jordan said. “We are de-legitimizing this institution.”
As Cohen read from the 20-page statement, Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., shook his head in visible contempt.
Cohen had long been among Trump’s most voluble defenders. But last year, before he was sentenced to prison, he told a judge he had been blinded by misguided loyalty. “Time and time again, I felt it was my duty to cover up his dirty deeds,” he said at the time.
Cohen, the combative lawyer who once vowed that he would “take a bullet” for his former boss, has pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate in investigations of Russian interference in the 2016 election and illegal payments to women who claimed to have had sex with Trump. Both Cohen and the Justice Department have alleged in court that Trump directed Cohen to make the payments, though they stopped short of alleging that the president himself had violated the law.
Trump has said he was not involved in Cohen’s crimes, and has described his former lawyer as a “liar” and a “rat.” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said “it’s laughable that anyone would take a convicted liar like Cohen at his word, and pathetic to see him given yet another opportunity to spread his lies.”
Cohen is scheduled to begin serving a three-year prison term on May 6.
He testified on Tuesday before a closed session of the Senate Intelligence Committee and is scheduled to testify again before the House Intelligence Committee on Thursday. Both panels are investigating Russian election interference.
Testimony: Michael Cohen, once keeper of Donald Trump’s secrets, plans to accuse the president of ‘criminal conduct’
Takeaways: Cohen takeaways: As Trump’s former lawyer heads to prison, political and legal implications grow for White House
This story will be updated.