Philip Ewing, NPR
Updated 2:16 p.m.
Donald Trump apparently blessed the meeting his son took with a Russian delegation to get dirt on opponents in 2016 and welcomed advance word of efforts by WikiLeaks to disrupt the election, his former lawyer told Congress on Wednesday.
Those were only a few of the politically incendiary allegations Michael Cohen made in a landmark hearing before the House oversight committee, although he stopped short of accusing Trump and his campaign of full-on conspiracy with the Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Cohen did, however, allege that GOP political consultant Roger Stone phoned Trump to tell him that WikiLeaks intended to release a batch of emails that would embarrass the Democratic National Committee.
Cohen described being in Trump's office when Stone called to say he had just talked with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange about the release. Stone has denied that, but he too is facing charges of lying to Congress, in a federal case in Washington, D.C.
Russian intelligence officers stole emails from the Democrats and others as part of a concerted attack on the U.S. election, although it still isn't clear how much Trump and his campaign knew about Russia's efforts or whether the material WikiLeaks obtained had originated from the work of Russia's intelligence services.
Watch the hearing back here.
Cohen was asked whether he believed it was possible that Trump and his family might have been compromised or whether they might have been willing to collude with the Russians.
Yes, he said.
Cohen also suggested that Donald Trump Jr. may have told his father about the June 2016 meeting he scheduled at Trump Tower following an offer of help from Russian government — one President Trump has denied he knew about at the time.
But Trump knew about everything, Cohen said.
"There was nothing that happened at the Trump Organization ... that did not go through Mr. Trump for his approval and sign-off," he said.
Laundry list of alleged wrongdoing
Cohen also made a number of other accusations against Trump:
- That Trump paid Cohen, while in office, to cover the costs associated with buying the silence of a woman who said she had had a sexual relationship with Trump years earlier — an allegation Trump has denied.
- That Trump's camp encouraged Cohen to lie to Congress and the public about the negotiations the Trump business had carried on with powerful Russians about a potential Trump Tower real estate deal in Moscow. The statement Cohen prepared, he said, was edited by Trump's lawyers.
- Cohen said Trump told him to lie about the medical deferments that Trump received that excused him from the draft during the Vietnam War. Cohen said Trump had no medical records to back up his claim of a medical deferment but said he wasn't "stupid" and had no intention of being drafted.
- Trump ordered Cohen to find a fake buyer for a portrait of Trump to make it appear that the painting had sold for a lot of money and was therefore valuable; actually, Cohen said, Trump arranged to use money from his foundation to inflate the sale price.
Cohen also faulted Trump for remarks that Cohen called racist and for his years as a "con man," treating nearly everyone as a sucker and using his political aspirations as an "informercial" for himself — not as a way to serve the United States as the holder of its highest office.
Republicans reject out of hand
Republicans and the White House rejected Cohen's allegations before he even made them, pointing out that he has pleaded guilty to federal charges of lying to Congressand has been sentenced to three years in prison.
Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., objected to the proceedings on Wednesday before Chairman Elijah Cummings, D-Md., had even delivered his opening statement, leading to a dispute over whether the hearing could continue.
Ultimately, it went ahead.
Trump said on Twitter that Cohen is only trying to get a lighter punishment, having been sentenced to three years in prison.
Michael Cohen was one of many lawyers who represented me (unfortunately). He had other clients also. 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!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 27, 2019
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders slammed the House oversight committee for giving Cohen a venue to air public complaints against the president when Cohen is a "convicted liar."
Schemes within schemes
Cohen's opening statement addressed directly his history of lying — yes, he said, he had lied many times in the past. But, he said, that was when he was in Trump's thrall and those days are over.
"For those who question my motives for being here today, I understand," he said. "I have lied, but I am not a liar. I have done bad things, but I am not a bad man. I have fixed things, but I am no longer your 'fixer,' Mr. Trump."
Cohen provided members of Congress what what he said were documents that backed up his testimony, including a check signed by Trump that Cohen said was part of the reimbursement for paying off adult film actress Stormy Daniels.
Trump, Cohen and Allen Weisselberg, the CFO of Trump's company, worked out the arrangement under which Cohen would be repaid the $130,000 he gave Daniels to keep her from talking, Cohen said.
They agreed on a year's worth of periodic smaller payments that would make it look like Cohen was getting a retainer as Trump's lawyer, he said. Trump signed some of the checks, one of which Cohen gave to the committee. At least one was signed by Trump Jr. and Weisselberg, which Cohen also gave committee members.
Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., emphasized that the check was drawn on the trust that Trump created to give up control of his business after he was elected. That indicated that he stayed involved, despite his claims, and interacted with Trump Jr. and Weisselberg to make the payments to Cohen.
"That's garden variety financial fraud," Khanna.
The payment to another woman, former Playboy model Karen McDougal, was made on behalf of Trump by the publisher of the National Enquirer, American Media, Inc., run by Trump's friend David Pecker.
That arrangement had been used before, Cohen said, although he didn't detail every other instance in which Pecker had helped Trump "catch and kill" damaging stories, as the practice was called.
AMI reached an agreement with prosecutors in New York City in which it was not charged with a crime because it cooperated with investigators in Cohen's case.
The chicanery that Cohen described involved nearly every aspect of Trump's public life and career, according to his allegations.
Trump, for example, was in the practice of falsifying the value of his assets so that he would rank higher in listings of wealthy people, Cohen said.
Cohen told Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Mo., about the practices used within the Trump Organization to take the real value of a building and make it appear greater, which would in turn make Trump appear to be richer.
Cohen also described Trump telling him to call a reporter for Forbes magazine to litigate his wealth on its ranking one year. Trump worked with Cohen to rig online polls to make his political aspirations seem more plausible.
Trump's sensitivities, according to Cohen, even allegedly included his grades and SAT scores.
Cohen told members of Congress that Trump told him to threaten his former schools with lawsuits if they released records about him to reporters.
A spokesman for Fordham University told NPR on Wednesday that the school received an initial phone call from the Trump campaign and a follow-up letter from a Trump attorney "reminding us that they would take action against the university if we did, in fact, release Mr. Trump's records."
Fordham also said it was a moot point because it was "bound by federal law, and that we could/would not reveal/share any records (as we would not reveal any student records) with anyone except Mr. Trump himself, or any recipient he designated, in writing."
Trump, meanwhile, was preoccupied with the release of President Barack Obama's college transcripts.
A contentious hearing
Trump's allies called the hearing a political circus.
"This might be the first time someone convicted of lying to Congress has appeared again so quickly in front of Congress," said the oversight committee's ranking member, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio. "Certainly it's the first time a convicted perjurer has been brought back to be a star witness."
Cohen even reportedly lied about delivering his own son in the hospital, Jordan said.
And Cohen didn't lie only to Congress, observed Rep. Mark Green, R-Tenn. He also lied on his tax forms for the Internal Revenue Service, transgressions that were part of his guilty plea in a federal case in New York City.
Meadows also invited an official from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Lynne Patton, who was a former Trump employee. She stood up at the hearing. If Trump is a racist as Cohen charged, Meadows asked, why did he hire Patton, a black woman?
Cohen asked in response why there aren't any black executives within the Trump Organization. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Mich., called Meadows' showcasing of Patton insensitive.
Republicans also said Cummings and Democrats have become so deranged by their animus toward Trump that they were willing to risk his negotiations in Vietnam.
New Low for House Democrats:— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) February 27, 2019
Holding hearings with Michael Cohen while President @realDonaldTrump negotiates with North Korea about giving up their nuclear arsenal.
Democrats hatred of Trump is undercutting an important foreign policy effort and is way out of line.
The president is meeting with the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Un, but his supporters complained about what they called an inappropriate focus away from those negotiations over nuclear weapons and onto Cohen's accounts.
Cummings called Cohen's statement too important not to hear, and he said that Americans listening to the hearing should judge for themselves whether they believe him.
NPR reporters Scott Detrow, Ryan Lucas, Tim Mak and Barbara Sprunt contributed to this report.