U.S. President Donald Trump's former longtime lawyer Michael Cohen told a congressional investigating panel Wednesday that Trump is "a racist... a con man...a cheat."
Cohen, at the start of expected hours of testimony, told lawmakers that Trump knew that his campaign adviser Roger Stone was in contact with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange about the release of hacked Democratic National Committee emails damaging to his 2016 opponent Hillary Clinton before WikiLeaks released them to the public.
Cohen said Trump also knew about and directed him to lie to Congress about negotiations Trump's company had during the 2016 campaign to build a skyscraper in Moscow, while then-candidate Trump told voters that he had no business dealings in Russia.
Cohen said Trump never expected to win the presidency.
"Donald Trump is a man who ran for office to make his brand great, not to make our country great," Cohen said. "He had no desire or intention to lead this nation – only to market himself and to build his wealth and power. The campaign – for him – was always a marketing opportunity."
Cohen, citing his experiences in working for Trump for more than a decade, concluded, "He is a racist. He is a con man. And he is a cheat."
Cohen's testimony is occurring about two months before he is set to report to prison for a three-year term after pleading guilty to financial crimes, campaign finance violations linked to the 2016 election and lying to Congress.
Trump, in Vietnam for his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jung Un, assailed his former lawyer on Twitter ahead of his testimony, saying he "was just disbarred by the State Supreme Court for lying & fraud. He did bad things unrelated to Trump. He is lying in order to reduce his prison time."
Republican lawmakers on the House Committee on Oversight and Reform disparaged Cohen’s conduct that led to his guilty pleas for tax fraud and lying to a bank. Congressman Mark Green said, “He’s a fake witness. His appearance here is a travesty.” Democratic lawmakers zeroed in on Cohen’s testimony about Trump’s actions.
Cohen detailed reimbursements to him by Trump for hush money payments Cohen made in the weeks before the 2016 election to keep adult film star Stormy Daniels quiet about an affair she alleges she had with Trump more than a decade ago. Cohen said Trump personally signed 11 checks from his personal bank account while he was president, and provided the committee a copy of one check for $35,000.
But Cohen said he did not have direct evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia to help Trump win, a key allegation that special counsel Robert Mueller has been investigating for nearly two years. "I have my suspicions," Cohen said.
Cohen cited as potential collusion evidence a conversation he witnessed between Trump and his son, Donald Trump Jr. Cohen says he believes the topic was a 2016 meeting that occurred at Trump Tower in New York involving the younger Trump, the president's son-in-law and now senior White House adviser Jared Kushner, his campaign manager Paul Manafort, and a Russian lawyer with ties to the Russian government.
That meeting has drawn scrutiny, including from Mueller. President Trump has denied having advance knowledge of the talks, and in August downplayed allegations that his side was there to get potentially harmful information about Clinton, saying such acts are "totally legal and done all the time in politics."
Cohen said one time Trump arranged for a fake bidder at an auction to pay $60,000 for a portrait of Trump, then reimbursed the bidder out of funds from Trump's charitable foundation so Trump could hang the painting at one of his country clubs.
The lawyer said, “Mr. Trump is a cheat. It was my experience that Mr. Trump inflated his total assets when it served his purposes, such as trying to be listed among the wealthiest people in Forbes, and deflated his assets to reduce his real estate taxes."
He called Trump a “racist,” saying he often disparaged blacks.
“The country has seen Mr. Trump court white supremacists and bigots,” Cohen said. “You have heard him call poorer countries 'shitholes.' In private, he is even worse. He once asked me if I could name a country run by a black person that wasn’t a 'shithole.' This was when Barack Obama was president of the United States. 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."
Cohen is the highest-profile witness since the 1970s Watergate scandal to testify in Congress against a sitting American president.
The last time the United States witnessed anything like this was in 1973, when former White House Counsel John Dean delivered a dramatic testimony that implicated President Richard Nixon and others in a cover-up effort in the Watergate affair. A year later Nixon became the first American president in history to resign.
Cohen pleaded guilty to lying to Congress once before and will have his work cut out to persuade lawmakers he is telling the truth this time.
Facing a lengthy prison sentence, Cohen struck a deal with prosecutors.
In August, he pleaded guilty to eight criminal charges, including campaign finance violations in connection with the payments to Daniels and McDougal. In December, he pleaded guilty to one count of lying to Congress about the Trump Organization's efforts to negotiate a deal to construct a Trump Tower in Moscow during the 2016 presidential campaign.
In return, he received a three-year prison sentence. He's scheduled to report to prison in early May.
As part of his plea agreement, Cohen is continuing to cooperate with federal prosecutors in New York who are investigating Trump's business interests and millions of dollars of donations made to his presidential inaugural committee. Cohen was a fundraiser for the committee.
Chris Hannas contributed to this report