U.S. President Donald Trump’s former personal lawyer is preparing to tell a House committee Wednesday that Trump knew ahead of time that WikiLeaks had emails damaging to his rival Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, and that he is a “racist,” a “conman” and a “cheat.”
Michael Cohen suggests in prepared testimony obtained by The Associated Press 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 election.
Cohen says Trump did not directly tell him to lie, but that “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.”
Cohen said that “in his way, he was telling me to lie.”
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 the testimony, which is set to begin at 10 a.m.. ET, Cohen apologizes for his actions and says, “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.
Trump, in Hanoi for a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on Wednesday, took to Twitter to distance himself from Cohen.
On 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 says in the testimony. “The answer is yes.”
Allegations of racism
Despite Trump’s protestations, the relationship between the men stretches back until 2006, Cohen told Vanity Fair in late 2017. 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 also says that 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.
He also says Trump once asked him to name a country run by a black person that wasn’t falling apart, though he says Trump used a vulgarism. At the time, Barack Obama was U.S. president.
Cohen says in his opening statement that Trump never expected to be president himself and was promoting his brand during the campaign, which may undercut arguments that Trump was actively colluding with Russia.
In addition, he has previously denied being in Prague in August 2016 to meet with Kremlin-linked individuals, a detail in the so-called Steele dossier that Republicans have sought to discredit. It is likely to come up in questioning on Wednesday.
The expected political theatre is the second of three consecutive days of congressional testimony from Cohen, sandwiched between closed door sessions with the Senate and House intelligence committees.
Republicans are expected to aggressively attempt to discredit Cohen, given that he has acknowledged lying to Congress previously. White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders and Trump’s laywer Rudy Giuliani both characterized Cohen’s planned testimony as “pathetic.”
“If you believe him you are a fool,” Giuliani said in a statement early Wednesday.
Democrats may bring up the fact that for all his apparent untrustworthiness, their rivals were employing Cohen as the deputy finance chair of the Republican National Committee until June 2018, two months after investigators searched his offices.
Trump business practices in spotlight
One Republican House member did more than just question Cohen’s credibility. Florida Republican Matt Gaetz tweeted Tuesday that the world is “about to learn a lot” about Cohen and suggested he knew of disparaging information that could come out during the hearing. The Trump ally offered no evidence to support his remarks and waved off the notion that he appeared to be threatening or intimidating a witness.
After a barrage of criticism, Gaetz apologized and said he was deleting the tweet and should have chosen better words to show his intent.
Democrats have been alternately suspicious of Cohen and eager to hear what he has to say. Sen. Mark Warner, the intelligence panel’s top Democrat, suggested in a brief statement to reporters outside Tuesday’s interview that Cohen had provided important information.
“Two years ago when this investigation started I said it may be the most important thing I am involved in in my public life in the Senate, and nothing I’ve heard today dissuades me from that view,” Warner said.
In addition to lying to Congress, Cohen pleaded guilty last year to campaign finance violations for his involvement in 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 porn actress 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.”
In his prepared testimony, Cohen says he will present 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.
Trump at first denied knowledge of the payments but as new details were learned by the media and investigators has tried to cast it as “a simple private transaction.”
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 is not expected to discuss matters related to Russia in the public hearing, saving that information for the closed-door interviews with the intelligence committees. House oversight committee chair Elijah Cummings has said he doesn’t want to interfere with Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and links to Trump’s campaign.
Members of the oversight panel are expected to ask questions about the campaign finance violations — including whether there were other hush payments — Trump’s business practices and compliance with tax laws and “the accuracy of the president’s public statements,” according to a memo laying out the scope of the hearing.
Cohen’s temperament will also be under the spotlight, both in terms of the sincerity of his contrition and whether he keeps his cool – he famously lashed out at a CNN anchor during the presidential campaign when she asserted that Trump was trailing Hillary Clinton in public opinion polls.