Donald Trump’s former personal lawyer told Congress the US president knew ahead of time that WikiLeaks had emails damaging to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and he testified the American leader was a “racist”, a “conman” and a “cheat”.
Michael Cohen suggested Mr 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 Mr Trump knew about as Cohen was negotiating with Russia during the 2016 election campaign.
The hearing was expected to produce the most damning depiction to date of Mr Trump’s campaign and business operations from a one-time member of the president’s inner circle.
It is the latest step in Cohen’s evolution from legal fixer for the president – he once boasted he’d “take a bullet” for Mr Trump – to a foe who has implicated him in federal campaign finance violations.
“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 own conscience. I am ashamed because I know what Mr. Trump is.”
Cohen’s claims that Mr Trump had advance knowledge of the emails contradict the president’s assertions that he was in the dark.
But it was not clear what evidence Cohen had to support the allegation or even how legally problematic it would be for Mr Trump.
Special counsel Robert Mueller has not suggested that mere awareness of WikiLeaks’ plans, as Mr Trump confidant Roger Stone is purported to have had, is by itself a crime.
Underscoring the deeply partisan nature of the proceedings, Democrats on the House Oversight and Reform Committee lifted an earlier restriction that the hearing not delve into Russia, while Republicans tried unsuccessfully to block the hearing as it got underway, on grounds that Cohen had not provided his opening statement long enough in advance.
The committee’s top Republican, Jim Jordan of Ohio, sought early on to undermine Cohen’s credibility by calling him a “fraudster, cheat” and “a convicted felon”.
“Certainly it’s the first time a convicted perjurer has been brought back to be a star witness at a hearing,” Mr Jordan said.
Cohen said Mr Trump did not directly tell him to lie, but “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”.
He added that lawyers for Mr Trump had “reviewed and edited” the statement in which Cohen falsely said a proposal for a Trump Tower in Moscow had been abandoned in January 2016.
Cohen has since said he continued pursuing the project for Mr Trump for months after that.
Mr Trump, at a Vietnam hotel before a planned meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and unable to ignore the drama playing out thousands of miles away, lashed out at Cohen on Twitter.
The president said his lawyer “did bad things unrelated to Trump” and “is lying in order to reduce his prison time”.
A judge already has set Cohen’s sentence.
Cohen’s co-operation will have no bearing on that term.
Ahead of his appearance, Cohen said the American people could decide “exactly who is telling the truth” when he testified before the House committee.
On WikiLeaks, Cohen said in the prepared testimony that he was in Mr Trump’s office in July 2016 when long-time adviser Roger Stone telephoned.
Mr Trump put Mr Stone on speakerphone and Mr Stone told him that he had communicated with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and that “within a couple of days, there would be a massive dump of emails that would damage Hillary Clinton’s campaign”, according to Cohen.
Mr Trump responded by saying “wouldn’t that be great”, Cohen said.
That month, WikiLeaks released thousands of emails hacked from the Democratic National Committee’s server.
“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 said in the prepared testimony. “The answer is yes.”
Cohen said he does not have direct evidence that Mr Trump colluded with the Russian government during the election, but that he had “suspicions”.
Of a meeting in Trump Tower between campaign advisers, including Mr Trump’s oldest son, and a Russian lawyer, Cohen said Mr Trump had frequently told him that Donald Trump Jnr “had the worst judgment of anyone in the world” and he “would never set up any meeting of any significance alone – and certainly not without checking with his father”.
Cohen, once Mr Trump’s loyal attorney, has turned on his former boss and co-operated with Mr Mueller’s Russia investigation. He begins a three-year prison sentence in May after pleading guilty to lying to Congress in 2017 and committing campaign finance violations while working for Trump.
He met with the Senate intelligence committee for more than nine hours behind closed doors on Tuesday. Cohen said afterward that he appreciated the opportunity to “clear the record and tell the truth” to the panel after acknowledging he lied to the committee in 2017.
It was the first of three days of congressional appearances for Cohen. After the public hearing, he will appear privately before the House intelligence panel tomorrow.
Republicans were expected to aggressively attempt to discredit Cohen, given that he has acknowledged lying previously.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said yesterday it was “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”.