Michael Cohen to Congress: 'I am not protecting Mr. Trump anymore'
The former Trump attorney, who called the president a 'racist' and 'con man,' testified that Roger Stone had told Trump in advance about a WikiLeaks emails release that would hurt Hillary Clinton's campaign.
WASHINGTON — Michael Cohen, long-time fixer and personal attorney to President Donald Trump, painted a scathing portrait Wednesday of his former boss in Hill testimony alleging Trump approved hush money payments to Stormy Daniels, knew about the 2016 WikiLeaks email dump in advance and had wanted Congress to receive misleading testimony about his ties to Russia.
Cohen described Trump as an "intoxicating" presence. "It seems unbelievable that I was so mesmerized by Donald Trump that I was willing to do things for him that I knew were absolutely wrong," he said, offering apologies to Congress, his family and the American people.
“I regret the day I said 'yes' to Mr. Trump. I regret all the help and support I gave him along the way,” said Cohen in a 20-page opening statement. “I am not protecting Mr. Trump anymore.”
In his closing remarks, Cohen addressed the president head-on, occasionally looking straight into the cameras while ticking off items on a lengthy list of criticism of Trump's behavior in office, ranging from his weather-based decision to skip a ceremony honoring veterans to his attacks on law enforcement, the media and others.
"You don’t use your power of your bully pulpit to destroy the credibility of those who speak out against you. You don’t separate families from one another or demonize those looking to America for a better life. You don’t vilify people based on the god they pray to, and you don’t cuddle up to our adversaries at the expense of our allies," he said.
"And finally, you don’t shut down the government before Christmas and New Year’s just to simply appease your base. This behavior is churlish, it denigrates the office of the president and it’s un-American and it’s not you."
Cohen is due to report to prison in early May for a three-year sentence for a series of charges he pleaded guilty to last year, including eight felony counts of tax evasion, bank fraud and campaign finance violations, as well as one count of making a false statement to Congress. On the eve of his testimony, a New York state court filing revealed that he had been disbarred.
Democrats, who now control the committee, asked Cohen questions Wednesday about alleged criminal conduct by Trump while Republican members on the committee largely sought to discredit and delegitimize Cohen’s testimony, with one lawmaker describing him as a “pathological liar” due to his previous false statements to Congress.
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Cohen, who worked for Trump for over a decade, addressed why he ultimately lied to Congress in 2017 about the Trump Tower project.
"Mr. Trump knew of and directed the Trump Moscow negotiations throughout the campaign and lied about it. He lied about it because he never expected to win. He also lied about it because he stood to make hundreds of millions of dollars on the Moscow real estate project. And so I lied about it too," said Cohen.
"Mr. Trump had made clear to me, through his personal statements to me that we both knew were false and through his lies to the country, that he wanted me to lie. And he made it clear to me because his personal attorneys reviewed my statement before I gave it to Congress," he added.
"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 on the Moscow real estate project."
Cohen also suggested that the president has not told the truth about why he hasn't released his tax returns to the public, saying he had not done so during his campaign because "an entire group of think tanks" would "start ripping it to pieces," he might be forced to pay more taxes or penalties, and the move would lead to an audit. Trump has repeatedly said that he does not want release his tax returns because he is already under audit.
"I presume he is not under audit," Cohen said.
And despite parameters set by Democrats that made issues related to the Russia probe off-limits, Cohen used the opportunity to make new claims that contradicted the president’s previous statements, including the allegation that Trump knew Roger Stone had spoken to Julian Assange ahead of the WikiLeaks drop of Democratic National Committee emails.
“I was in Mr. Trump’s office when his secretary announced that Roger Stone was on the phone," Cohen said. "Mr. Trump put Mr. Stone on the speakerphone. Mr. Stone told Mr. Trump that he had just gotten off the phone with [WikiLeaks founder] Julian Assange and that Mr. Assange told Mr. Stone that, within a couple of days, there would be a massive dump of emails that would damage Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Mr. Trump responded by stating to the effect of 'wouldn’t that be great.'"
Cohen, however, said that he knew of no direct evidence that Trump or his presidential campaign colluded with Russia.
"I do not. I want to be clear. But I have my suspicions," he said.
Asked if he knew of other criminal conduct by Trump that hadn't been discussed in the hearing Wednesday, Cohen said, "Yes," but that he couldn't discuss it because of ongoing federal investigations.
The president's former attorney provided the committee with a series of documents, including letters he authored threatening Trump's high school, college and the College Board from releasing his grades and SAT scores, according to Cohen's prepared opening statement. Cohen also presented a pair of reimbursement checks he received for the $130,000 hush payment he made to porn star Stormy Daniels weeks before the 2016 presidential election to keep her quiet about her allegation of a 2006 affair with Trump — an affair Trump says did not happen.
An August 2017 check for $35,000 was signed by Trump, while a March 2017 check for the same amount was signed by both Donald Trump Jr. and Trump Organization Chief Operating Officer Allen Weisselberg.
Cohen told the panel that Trump had asked him to pay off adult film star Stormy Daniels "with whom he had an affair, and to lie to his wife about it."
"Mr. Trump directed me to use my own personal funds from a Home Equity Line of Credit to avoid any money being traced back to him that could negatively impact his campaign," Cohen said. "And I am going to jail in part because of my decision to help Mr. Trump hide that payment from the American people before they voted a few days later."
Asked about reimbursements for the hush money, Cohen said, "He knew about everything, yes. Everything had to go through Mr. Trump, and it had to be approved by Mr. Trump."
Cohen's documentation and testimony, said Chairman Elijah Cummings, D-Md., "raises grave questions about the legality of President Trump's conduct and the truthfulness of his statements while he was president."
The top Republican on the committee, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, former Freedom Caucus chairman, said that Democrats are merely using Cohen because they want to "try to remove the president from office, because Tom Steyer told them to” and he accused Cohen of not being remorseful.
"Shame on you, Mr. Jordan, that's not what I said," Cohen said, adding that he's being separated from his family and going to prison. "I made mistakes. I own them."
Cohen later added, "All I wanted to say is I just find it interesting, sir, that between yourself and your colleagues that not one question so far since I’m here has been asked about President Trump."
Trump, who is in Vietnam for a nuclear summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, attacked Cohen ahead of his testimony, tweeting that his former lawyer "did bad things unrelated to Trump."
The House Oversight Committee hearing came a day after Cohen appeared in a closed-door hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee. On Thursday, Cohen will meet in closed session with the House Intelligence Committee.
Rebecca Shabad is a congressional reporter for NBC News, based in Washington.
Heidi Przybyla, Jonathan Allen, Adam Reiss, Alex Moe, Marianna Sotomayor and Allan Smith contributed.