Michael Cohen, once among President Trump’s most ardent defenders, fiercely turned on him Wednesday, describing a culture of rampant criminality and nonstop lying around Trump involving payoffs to his alleged mistresses, inflated personal wealth and secret efforts to build Europe’s tallest skyscraper in Moscow.
Cohen, who worked as Trump’s personal lawyer and New York fixer for more than a decade, suggested in a congressional hearing that Trump had skirted or violated federal banking, tax and campaign finance laws, and he indicated that some of those actions already are under criminal investigation.
The explosive daylong testimony to the House Committee on Oversight and Reform provided riveting political theater, with the now-disbarred lawyer and convicted felon repeatedly saying he was ashamed of his actions — at times fighting back tears — even as he held his ground against fierce attacks on his credibility by Republicans.
Cohen provided fresh details on scandals that already have come to light — most notably displaying a $35,000 check signed by the president in August 2017 to reimburse Cohen for a hush-money payment — and he provided House Democrats with new clues for their inquiries into a president he described as a “racist,” a “con man” and a “cheat.”
“I am ashamed that I chose to take part in concealing Mr. Trump’s illicit acts rather than listening to my own conscience,” Cohen said.
Asked about his most recent conversation with the president, which occurred last year, Cohen said he couldn’t discuss it because it was “currently being investigated right now” by federal prosecutors in Manhattan. He added that he is in “constant contact” with the U.S. attorney’s office there.
Cohen, 52, flashed wit occasionally, even joking about whether a hostile Republican who asked about his legal fees was offering to help pay them.
But he mostly spoke morosely and methodically, his face drooping around his red-rimmed eyes, a far cry from the feisty factotum once known for his slavish displays of loyalty to the man he still calls only “Mr. Trump.”
As the nationally televised hearing drew to a close, Cohen shared a dark warning about the president and the country’s future.
“Given my experience working for Mr. Trump, I fear that if he loses the election in 2020 there will never be a peaceful transition of power,” he said.
The president has called Cohen a “rat” and a liar, and Trump’s Republican allies on the committee took turns challenging Cohen’s credibility, pointing out again and again that he has pleaded guilty to lying to Congress.
House Democrats intend to use Cohen’s testimony to flesh out other investigations into Trump and his associates.
“Two hundred years from now, people will be reading about this moment,” Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), the committee’s chairman, said after the hearing. He added, “I think there are a number of shoes left to drop.”
Cohen suggested that Trump had provided inaccurate financial statements to Deutsche Bank when he was seeking financing to possibly purchase the Buffalo Bills franchise in the National Football League.
And he said Trump indirectly encouraged him to lie about his pursuit of a Trump Tower in Moscow during the 2016 presidential campaign.
“At the same 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,” Cohen said. “In his way, he was telling me to lie.”
Trump repeatedly asked about the negotiations in Moscow during the campaign, Cohen said. He said Trump pushed the project — which was never built — because it would be worth hundreds of millions of dollars and because he didn’t think he would beat Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
Cohen said Trump routinely inflated the value of his assets to stay on the Forbes list of the nation’s most wealthy individuals — even as he “reveled” in stiffing small-business vendors at his casinos and other properties.
And he said Trump had directed him to threaten the universities Trump attended to not release any records showing his grades or his SAT scores.
Cohen shed no light on any direct coordination or conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, the focus of the special counsel investigation.
“Was there something odd about the back and forth praise with President Putin? Yes,” Cohen said when asked about possible collusion. “But I’m not really sure I can answer the question.”
However, Cohen said he overheard a conversation between Trump and Roger Stone, a longtime political advisor and Republican operative who is also under indictment for lying to Congress.
Cohen said he listened on a speakerphone when Stone told Trump before the Democratic National Convention in July 2016 that WikiLeaks was going to release thousands of emails damaging to Clinton’s campaign. The emails had been hacked by Russian operatives.
Trump responded by saying something like “wouldn’t that be great,” Cohen recalled.
Stone denied the conversation took place. “Mr. Cohen’s statement is not true,” he said in a text message Wednesday.
Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s former personal lawyer, is sworn in to testify on Capitol Hill in Washington.(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)
(Olivier Douliery / Abaca Press)
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) questions Michael Cohen as he testifies before the House Oversight Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.(Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
makes closing remarks after testimony from Michael Cohen.(Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
Michael Cohen, former attorney to President Donald J. Trump, becomes emotional while listening to the closing remarks of House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings(Michael Reynolds / EPA / Shutterstock)
At one point, Republican critics hung a banner in the hearing room that read, “Liar, liar, pants on fire.”(Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Associated Press)
(Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, (D-N.Y.) questions Michael Cohen as he testifies before the House Oversight and Reform Committee.(Alex Brandon / Associated Press)
An image of a check signed by President Trump, that was allegedly used for hush money, is displayed on a screen as Michael Cohen makes his opening statement before the House Oversight Committee.(JIM LO SCALZO/EPA-EFE/REX / JIM LO SCALZO/EPA-EFE/REX)
A quote about Michael Cohen, attributed to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, is put on display during testimony before the House Oversight Committee on Capitol Hill February 27, 2019 in Washington, DC.(Alex Wong / Getty Images)
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) questions Michael Cohen as he testifies before the House Oversight Committee on Capitol Hill.(Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
(Jim Lo Scalzo/ EPA / Shutterstock)
Michael Cohen arrives to testify before the House Oversight and Reform Committee on Capitol Hill.(Alex Brandon / Associated Press)
After Trump won the election, Cohen said, lawyers for the president and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, changed his prepared testimony about the Trump Tower Moscow project for congressional committees investigating Russian interference in the election.
In a statement, one of Trump’s lawyers, Jay Sekulow, called the accusation “completely false.”
Cohen later pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about how long he had pursued the Moscow project. In all he has pleaded guilty to nine criminal charges, including bank fraud and tax evasion.
He is scheduled to start serving a three-year prison sentence on May 6, but he hopes to reduce his time behind bars by continuing to cooperate with prosecutors.
Although Cohen spoke briefly in court last year, the hearing marked his first opportunity to share his account with the public. He also testified to the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday and will do the same on Thursday to the House Intelligence Committee.
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), the committee’s top Republican, blasted Democrats for turning a “convicted perjurer” into a “star witness.” He also accused Cohen of turning on Trump because he didn’t get a job in the White House.
“That’s the point isn’t it? You didn’t get brought to the dance,” Jordan said.
Cohen denied that, saying he was happy to be the president’s personal lawyer. He said he changed his mind after Trump appeared to back white separatists involved in violence in August 2017 in Charlottesville, Va., and after Trump sided with Russian President Vladimir Putin over his own intelligence agencies last year in Helsinki, Finland.
Cohen said Trump asked him to make the payment out of his own pocket using his home equity line of credit to cover his tracks. Cohen was later reimbursed through the Trump Organization.
Although Trump later denied knowing about the scheme, Cohen said, “he knew about everything.”
Cohen even gave the committee a copy of a check for $35,000 signed by the president on Aug. 1, 2017, one of a dozen payments that Cohen said was to reimburse him for paying the women to keep silent during the campaign.
He has pleaded guilty to two campaign finance violations because the money was intended to influence the election and was not properly disclosed.
Cohen described his former boss as a vain and self-centered man, saying he “ran for office to make his brand great, not to make our country great.”
He recalled being asked to find a straw buyer to purchase a portrait of Trump during an auction — Trump wanted to ensure the painting fetched the highest price of any item there. Once the portrait was purchased for $60,000, Trump used his charitable foundation to reimburse the straw buyer.
Trump also told Cohen to tell reporters that he received a medical deferment to avoid serving in the Vietnam War even though he provided his lawyer with no evidence that he actually had bone spurs in his feet.
“You think I’m stupid? I wasn’t going to Vietnam,” Cohen recalled Trump saying.
Although Cohen presented fresh accusations about Trump, he also batted down several colorful allegations that have circulated.
He said he does not believe a tape exists of Trump engaging in sexual activities with prostitutes in a Moscow hotel, an allegation that surfaced in the dossier compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele.
And Cohen said he is convinced no video exists of Trump hitting First Lady Melania Trump in an elevator, and repeatedly said he does not believe Trump would strike his wife. Nor, he said in response to a question, does he believe Trump has a “love child” born out of wedlock.
Republicans hammered Cohen’s credibility, citing his criminal record that includes guilty pleas for tax evasion and bank fraud, crimes unrelated to his work for Trump.
Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) called Cohen a “pathological liar.” Rep. Mark Green (R-Tenn.) said he was a “fake witness” and “his presence here is a travesty.”
Cohen chided Republicans for focusing more on him than the president.
“I did the same thing that you’re doing now for 10 years. I protected Mr. Trump for 10 years,” he said.
Cohen added: “The more people follow Mr. Trump — as I did blindly — are going to suffer the same consequences that I’m suffering.”
Times staff writers David Willman and Sarah D. Wire contributed to this report.