WASHINGTON (AP) — In a damning depiction of Donald Trump, the president’s former lawyer cast him on Wednesday as a racist and a con man who used his inner circle to cover up politically damaging allegations about sex and lied, throughout the 2016 election campaign, about his business interests in Russia.
Michael Cohen, who previously pleaded guilty to lying to Congress, told lawmakers that Trump had advance knowledge, and embraced the news, that emails damaging to Hillary Clinton would be released during the campaign. But he also said he had no “direct evidence” that Trump or his aides colluded with Russia to get him elected, the primary question of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
Cohen, shaking off incessant criticism from Republicans anxious to paint him as a felon and liar, became the first Trump insider to pull back the curtain on a version of the inner workings of Trump’s political and business operations. He likened the president to a “mobster” who demanded blind loyalty from underlings and expected them to lie on his behalf to conceal information and protect him — even if it meant breaking the law.
“I am not protecting Mr. Trump anymore,” Cohen declared.
Offering stark TV counterprogramming to the president’s official duties, Cohen’s matter-of-fact testimony about secret payments and lies unfolded as Trump met with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. 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.”
In testimony that cut to the heart of federal investigations encircling the White House, Cohen said he arranged hush money payments to women on Trump’s behalf and lied about them to the public and the first lady at the president’s behest. He agreed to say Trump was “not knowledgeable” about the transactions, even though the president directly reimbursed him, and said he was left with the unmistakable impression Trump wanted him to lie to Congress about a Moscow real estate project, even if the president never directly told him so.
In one revelation, Cohen said prosecutors in New York were investigating conversations Trump or his advisers had with him after his office and hotel room was raided by the FBI last April. Cohen said he could not discuss that conversation, the last contact he said he has had with the president or anyone acting on his behalf, because it remains under investigation.
The 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 hearing proceeded along parallel tracks, with Democrats focusing on allegations against Trump while Republicans sought to undermine Cohen’s credibility and the proceeding itself.
As Republicans blasted him as a convicted liar, a mostly unrattled Cohen sought to blunt the attacks by repeatedly acknowledging his own failings. He called himself a “fool,” warned lawmakers of the perils of blind loyalty to a leader undeserving of it and pronounced himself ashamed of what he’d done to protect Trump.
“You make mistakes in life, and I’ve owned them, and I’ve taken responsibility for them, and I’m paying a huge price, as is my family,” Cohen said during testimony that spanned roughly seven hours.
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 decade-long professional relationship with the president and his proximity to the president during key episodes under investigation.