WASHINGTON: Michael Cohen, the former “fixer” and personal lawyer for US President Donald Trump, will testify on Wednesday that Trump knew ahead of time about a leak of emails that would hurt his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election.
Cohen will also tell Congress that Trump directed negotiations for a real estate project in Moscow even as he campaigned for the presidency and publicly stated he had no business interests in Russia, according to a draft of Cohen’s planned testimony.
In the text of his planned opening statement before a House of Representatives committee, Cohen calls Trump a “racist”, a “conman” and a “cheat” and said he would be handing over documents to support his assertions. The draft statement was first reported by the New York Times.
Cohen says Trump ordered him to pay US$130,000 to an adult film actress known as Stormy Daniels in order to cover up an affair in violation of campaign finance laws, and also told Cohen to lie about it to First Lady Melania Trump.
The sweeping claims against Trump from a man who was once a loyal ally come as Special Counsel Robert Mueller appears to be close to completing his investigation into possible collusion between Trump’s 2016 campaign team and Russian efforts to interfere in the election.
Trump has denied any collusion between his campaign and Moscow, dismisses the Mueller investigation as a “witch hunt” and has said Cohen is a liar and a “rat”.
“He did bad things unrelated to Trump. He is lying in order to reduce his prison time,” Trump said in a tweet on Wednesday from Vietnam, where he was to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to try to break a stalemate over the North’s nuclear weapons.
He has denied knowing ahead of time about the WikiLeaks dump of Democratic National Committee (DNC) emails during the election.
Cohen, in his prepared comments, said he was in Trump’s office in July 2016 when Roger Stone, a self-described “dirty trickster” and longtime political adviser to Trump, called the Republican presidential candidate.
Cohen said Stone told Trump he had been speaking with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who told him there would be a dump of emails within a couple of days that would damage Clinton’s campaign.
On July 22, 2016, WikiLeaks released internal DNC emails that drove a wedge between supporters of Clinton and her rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, Senator Bernie Sanders. Although Clinton won the nomination, that rift weakened her election bid.
Stone was indicted by Mueller on charges of lying to Congress about his communications with others related to WikiLeaks email dumps.
Stone denies having advance knowledge of WikiLeaks’ plans, although text messages reviewed by Reuters show that during the campaign he made several attempts to make contact with Assange.
Although Cohen will accuse Trump on a wide range of issues in his testimony on Wednesday, he said in his draft statement that he does not have direct evidence that Trump or his campaign colluded with Russia.
“I do not. I want to be clear. But I have my suspicions,” Cohen said.
It is not clear whether Cohen’s testimony will significantly alter public perception of Trump’s business practices or put him in greater legal peril.
Cohen, 52, was one of Trump’s closest aides and fiercest defenders, working with him on business and personal deals for a decade. But he turned against him last year and is cooperating with prosecutors after pleading guilty to tax evasion, bank fraud and campaign finance violations.
Cohen will start a three-year prison term in May.
The prepared remarks show Cohen intends to apologise for his initial statements to Congress in 2017 in which he said efforts to build a Trump skyscraper in Moscow had ceased by January 2016 when in fact they continued through June 2016.
Cohen said Trump’s lawyers “reviewed and edited” those false statements to Congress.
Cohen said Trump on multiple occasions inquired about the project while telling the public he had no business dealings in Russia – a falsehood Cohen said reflected Trump’s view that the campaign was aimed only at building his brand.
“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,” Cohen says.
Cohen described an incident when Trump’s son, Donald Jr, walked behind his father’s desk and told him in a low voice, “The meeting is all set.” Cohen said Trump replied, “Ok good … let me know.”
In hindsight, Cohen said he believed the son was referring to the June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower between a Russian lawyer promising “dirt” on Clinton and members of Trump’s campaign.
Trump has denied having advance knowledge of the meeting, which has come under intense scrutiny in the Mueller probe.
Cohen said in his draft statement he regrets the things he did for Trump. They included, he said, hush-money payments to two women and writing letters on Trump’s orders that threatened Trump’s high school, colleges and the College Board not to release his grades.
Cohen said he planned to provide the committee with a copy of a US$35,000 check Trump signed on August 1, 2017, one in a series to reimburse him for paying off Daniels after Trump took office.
“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 because I know what Mr Trump is. He is a racist. He is a conman. He is a cheat.”
Republicans on the House oversight panel, including ranking member Jim Jordan, are likely to aggressively question Cohen’s credibility, given his guilty plea for lying to Congress last year.
Republican lawmaker Matt Gaetz, a Trump ally, caused controversy with a tweet on Tuesday suggesting compromising information about Cohen’s private life might soon be released.
How Cohen handles the Republican assault could determine whether he is perceived as credible and if he has anything like the impact of John Dean, who helped bring down President Richard Nixon in the Watergate scandal of the 1970s.
Advocates for Cohen have likened his decision to come clean to Mueller’s team and federal prosecutors in Manhattan to that of Dean.
But Dean, former White House counsel to Nixon, told Reuters the significance of Cohen’s testimony would depend on what he says and how he responds to Republican criticism.
“It could be historic,” said Dean, now a frequent commentator on television. “But if he just gets beat up by the Republicans, it won’t be.”