WASHINGTON (CN) – Calling President Donald Trump a “cheat,” a “conman” and a “racist,” his former personal attorney Michael Cohen told a House committee Wednesday that the president knew about his longtime confidant Roger Stone’s attempts to contact WikiLeaks about releasing hacked Democratic Party emails during the 2016 campaign.
The hearing before the House Oversight Committee has been volatile as Cohen openly discussed the hot-button topic that has long dogged the Trump administration.
Cohen described how in July 2016, during a visit with Trump, he witnessed a phone call between the would-be president and Stone, Trump’s longtime adviser.
“Mr. Trump knew from Roger Stone in advance of the WikiLeaks drop of emails … Mr. Trump put Mr. Stone on the speakerphone,” Cohen said. “Mr. Stone told Mr. Trump he had just gotten off the phone with 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.”
The response from the president, Cohen alleges, was enthusiastic.
“Wouldn’t that be great?” Trump allegedly quipped to Cohen.
Though the president’s onetime attorney has no direct proof that Trump colluded with the Kremlin, he made clear in his testimony that he was suspicious.
It was not until the summer of 2017 when Cohen says something “clicked in my mind.”
“I remember being in the room with Mr. Trump, probably in early June 2016, when something peculiar happened,” he testified.
Cohen says he had been sitting down with the would-be president when Donald Trump Jr. strolled behind his father’s desk, leaned over and in hushed tones told his father, “The meeting is all set.”
“OK, good,” Trump allegedly replied. “Let me know.”
In addition to character assessments of the president, Cohen’s testimony also suggested that Trump specifically told him to hide information about the his plans to launch a real estate venture in Russia.
“Mr. Trump did not directly tell me to lie to Congress. That’s not how he operates,” Cohen said. “In conversations we had during the campaign, at the time I was actively negotiating in Russia for him, 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. In his way he was telling me to lie.”
Representative Justin Amash, R-Mich., asked Cohen to elaborate on what he meant about the president’s ability to give orders indirectly.
Cohen explained, “Trump will say something like ‘that’s the nicest looking tie I’ve ever seen.’ What are you going to do? Fight with him? No. You’re going to say, ‘yeah, that’s the nicest looking tie I’ve ever seen.’ He doesn’t give orders. He speaks in a code.”
Cohen pleaded guilty in August to lying to Congress about the details of Trump’s real estate dealings in Russia. Cohen has admitted that the deal for a Trump Tower in Moscow continued well into the 2016 presidential campaign, despite telling Congress that it had ended earlier.
Earier, the president’s former “fixer” pleaded guilty to a variety of tax-fraud charges and he admitted to arranging hush-money payments just ahead of the 2016 election to two women who claimed they had affairs with Trump, adult film star Stormy Daniels and former Playboy playmate Karen McDougal.
In his remarks Wednesday, Cohen claims the president’s lawyers both “reviewed and edited” his prepared statements to Congress about the Trump Tower deal in Moscow.
“To be clear: Mr. Trump knew of and directed the Trump Moscow negotiations throughout the campaign and lied about it,” Cohen said.
He lied because he “never expected to win the election,” and because he knew the deal would generate “hundreds of millions of dollars,” Cohen said.
During an exchange with Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., Cohen told lawmakers he was hesitant about using the word “collusion” when discussing Trump and his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, given the limited amount of insight he had into the June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower.
“Does Trump have the potential to collude with a foreign power to win the presidency at all costs?” Wasserman Schultz asked.
“Yes, but I should be clear…was there something odd about the back and forth praise with Putin? Yes. But I’m not really sure I can answer that question in terms of collusion,” Cohen replied. “I wasn’t part of the campaign, I don’t know of the other conversations he had with other individuals.”
But the president’s “desire to win” the election “would have him work with anyone” to meet that end, his former fixer said.
Cohen provided the committee a series of documents allegedly showing inconsistencies in the president’s finances. When Trump first inquired about a loan to buy the Buffalo Bills NFL team, he claimed to have a net worth of $4.5 billion in 2011, according to the documents.
The reports of his net worth to both Forbes and Deutsche Bank have fluctuated over the years considerably, according to Cohen.
“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,” Cohen said.
Cohen also provided a copy of a bank statement showing a $131,000 wire transfer from Cohen’s own home equity line which he claims was used to pay hush money to Daniels.
In addition to the financial statements Cohen gave to the committee, he also claims Trump ordered him to write threatening letters to the president’s high school, college and college board to keep his grades and SAT scores private.
Representative Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., asked Cohen what made him finally decide to break loyalty with Trump.
Trump’s behavior after the Helsinki summit and violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, and “the daily destruction of our civility to one another” by the president on Twitter forced his hand, Cohen said.
Cohen emphatically pleaded with lawmakers to trust his assessment of Trump.
“You don’t know him. I do. I sat next to him for 10 years. I watched his back. I’m the one who started his campaign,” he said.
Cohen added that “everyone’s job at the Trump organization is to protect Mr. Trump.”
Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., then asked Cohen if he believed the president abused any drugs.
“I’m unaware of that,” Cohen said.
He offered the same refrain after Krishnamoorthi asked whether Trump “arranged any health care procedures for women outside of his family,” a veiled reference to abortion.
Wednesday’s hearing also touched on race. During tense questioning from Representative Mark Meadows, R-NC, the lawmaker brought forward Lynne Patton, a black woman tapped by Trump to lead the New York and New Jersey region for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Patton told Meadows there was “no way she would work for an individual who was racist.”
“Neither should I, as a son of a Holocaust survivor,” Cohen said of his tenure working for Trump.
In a heated exchange with Meadows, Cohen also asked the committee to consider “how many executives or high ranking employees within the Trump Organization are black.”
Ahead of Wednesday’s hearing, Cohen met with lawmakers on the Senate Intelligence Committee for a closed-door session. He is also slated Thursday to speak with members of the House Intelligence Committee. Like Tuesday’s testimony, Thursday’s will also be behind closed doors.
Early Wednesday morning, the president weighed in on Cohen’s forthcoming public testimony.
“Michael Cohen was one of many lawyers who represented me (unfortunately.) He had other clients also,” Trump tweeted. “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. Using Crooked’s lawyer.”
The Special Counsel’s Office declined comment on Cohen’s opening remarks Wednesday.