Longtime Lawyer Accuses Trump Of Being A 'Conman'; Says President Knew About Moscow Skyscraper Talks
By Mike Eckel February 27, 2019
WASHINGTON -- Michael Cohen, U.S. President Donald Trump's longtime personal lawyer, has told a congressional hearing that Trump was "a conman" and "a cheat," and he said that Trump knew about negotiations during the 2016 election campaign to build a Trump-branded skyscraper in Moscow.
In a televised hearing on February 27, Cohen also suggested that federal prosecutors were investigating other unspecified criminal allegations regarding Trump that have not been made public.
The remarks were part of series of explosive allegations that Cohen made under oath during an extraordinary public hearing before the House of Representatives' Oversight and Reform Committee.
"I regret the day I said 'yes' to Mr. Trump," Cohen said, reading from prepared remarks.
"I am ashamed that I chose to take part in concealing Mr. Trump's illicit acts rather than listening to my own conscience. I am ashamed because I know what Mr. Trump is. He is a racist. He is a conman. He is a cheat," Cohen said.
The televised hearing, which riveted Washington, came as Trump was half-a-world away, attending a major summit in Vietnam with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Ahead of the hearing, Trump lashed out at Cohen, who was fired by Trump in May 2018, accusing him in a Twitter post of "lying to reduce his prison time."
While Democrats on the committee peppered Cohen with questions about his legal and business work for Trump, Republican members ripped into him, calling him a liar and trying to undermine his credibility.
"You have a history of lying over and over and over again," Representative Jim Jordan, the top Republican on the committee, told Cohen.
"How on earth is this witness credible?" Representative Mark Green (republican-Tennessee) asked.
Trump has denied any collusion between himself, his 2016 election campaign, or his associates and Moscow. He has repeatedly called the investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller a "witch hunt."
Cohen, who once emphasized his loyalty by saying he would "take a bullet" for Trump, has pleaded guilty to federal campaign finance violations that involved so-called "hush money" paid to two women who say they had affairs with Trump.
Cohen has also pleaded guilty to lying to Congress in a separate case, where he revealed more extensive negotiations between the Trump organization and Russian developers, to build a skyscraper in Moscow, than had been previously thought.
He is scheduled to begin a three-year prison sentence in May, based on his earlier guilty pleas.
Trump's ties to Russia were not expected to be directly discussed at the committee meeting. However, Cohen explicitly raised them in his comments, and they were a recurring theme, particularly among Democratic questioning.
Reading from prepared remarks that were released ahead of time, Cohen said Trump directed negotiations for the Moscow project during the presidential campaign despite stating that he had no business interests in Russia.
"When it came to the Trump Tower Moscow project, it was worth hundreds of millions of dollars, and we never expected to win the election," he said.
"There were at least a half-dozen times between...January 2016 and the end of June when he would ask me, 'How's it going in Russia' -- referring to the Moscow Tower project," Cohen said, adding: "To be clear: Mr. Trump knew of and directed the Trump Moscow negotiations throughout the campaign and lied about it."
Cohen said that lawyers for Trump "reviewed and edited" the statement in which Cohen falsely said a proposal for a Trump Tower in Moscow had been scrapped in January 2016.
Cohen has since said that he continued pursuing the project for months after that.
Asked about the reported involvement of other Trump family members in the talks, Cohen confirmed that he briefed Trump's daughter, Ivanka, and Trump's son, Donald Trump Jr., about the Moscow project. He said there were about "10 total" briefings.
A key figure in Trump's efforts to build a tower in Moscow was Felix Sater, a Russian-born real estate developer who is also a convicted mobster. Sater was reportedly in contact with Russian developers as Cohen sought to push the effort forward.
In a 2013 lawsuit, Trump said under oath that he did not know Sater.
However, Cohen testified that Sater had an office in Trump Tower in New York, on the same floor as Trump, and that he did not pay rent.
Under questioning from Democratic Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi, Cohen said that the last time he had spoken with Trump was in June 2018, about two months after the FBI had raided his home and law office in Manhattan.
When Krishnamoorthi asked about the details of the conversation, Cohen responded: "Unfortunately, this topic is actually something that is being investigated right now by [federal prosecutors], and I've been asked by them not to discuss, and not to talk about these issues."
In the 2016 election campaign, Trump defeated Democratic rival Hillary Clinton for the presidency. The campaign was thrown into turmoil on July 22, 2016, when WikiLeaks released hundreds of stolen e-mails from the Democratic National Committee (DNC).
Those e-mails stoked animus between supporters of Clinton and her rival for the Democratic nomination, Senator Bernie Sanders, and weakened her chances of winning the presidential election.
Trump has denied knowing ahead of time about the Wikileaks e-mail dump.
But Cohen told the committee he was in Trump's office in July 2016 when Trump received a phone call from Roger Stone, a longtime political adviser..
Cohen said Stone told Trump he had just been speaking with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who told him there would be a massive release of e-mails within a couple of days that would damage Clinton's campaign.
"A lot of people have asked me whether Mr. Trump knew about the release of the hacked [DNC] e-mails ahead of time," he says. "The answer is yes."
Cohen told the committee that Trump did not directly tell him to lie but that "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."
Trump dismissed Cohen's allegations in a tweet from Vietnam, where he is meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on February 27-28, accusing his former lawyer of lying.
"Michael Cohen was one of many lawyers who represented me (unfortunately). He had other clients also.... He did bad things unrelated to Trump. He is lying to reduce his prison time," Trump tweeted.
Cohen repeated earlier comments that he was involved in arranging hush money payments for the women who said they had affairs with Trump, something Trump has denied.
Under U.S. law, if Trump's money was used to pay the women who say they had affairs with him, or if he directed that to happen during an election cycle, it could be considered a campaign contribution that must be disclosed. Not disclosing it would be a felony.
On the Moscow Tower issue, Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman seemed to provide indirect support for Trump in remarks to reporters on February 27, saying that a January 2016 e-mail from Cohen to the Kremlin did not mention that Trump was interested in the matter.
"That was never mentioned," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said when asked whether the e-mail stated that Trump was personally interested in the tower deal taking place. "On the contrary, the e-mail was about how the project was not working out."
Putin's administration has previously confirmed receiving the e-mail, in which Cohen sought help in advancing the stalled development project, but said it neither replied nor discussed the matter with Putin.
Cohen's testimony also touched on another unresolved issue, involving the question of whether the Trump campaign sought to collude with Russian officials to sway U.S. voters.
During the 2016 campaign, a former British spy authored a series of damning and salacious memos about Trump when he was a businessman, which came to be known as the "Steele Dossier." One section of the report asserted that Cohen traveled to Prague in late summer 2016 for discussions with Russian officials.
But asked by Republican Representative Ralph Norman about such a trip, Cohen again denied it.
When Norman asked: "Have you ever been to Prague?" Cohen said, "I've never been to the Czech Republic."
Cohen's appearance is one of three before congressional panels this week, but the only one that will be open to the public.
Ties between Russia and Trump are expected to be more central to the hearings of the House Intelligence hearing on February 28, and were also likely to be the focus of a Senate hearing held behind closed doors on February 26.
With reporting by Reuters and AP
Copyright (c) 2019. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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