WASHINGTON (Reuters) – US President Donald Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen accused him of breaking the law while in office and said for the first time that Mr Trump knew in advance about a WikiLeaks dump of stolen emails that hurt his 2016 election rival Hillary Clinton.
In a dramatic televised hearing in Congress on Wednesday, Mr Cohen said Mr Trump approved hush payments to cover up extra-marital sexual relationships in violation of campaign finance laws, and signed a personal check for $35,000 in 2017 to reimburse Mr Cohen for at least one of those payments.
Mr Cohen, 52, was a close aide of Mr Trump for years and his testimony could increase the legal and political pressure on the Republican president, but he did not appear to disclose a “smoking gun” that could sink his former boss.
He told a House of Representatives committee he had no direct evidence that Mr Trump or his campaign colluded with Moscow during the election campaign.
Possible collusion is a key theme of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, which has dogged the president during his two years in office. Mr Trump has repeatedly denied the allegation as has the Kremlin.
Assailing the president as a “conman” and a “cheat,” Mr Cohen said Mr Trump knew ahead of time about WikiLeaks’ release of emails in 2016 that undermined Democrat Ms Clinton’s presidential bid.
He also said Mr Trump directed negotiations for a real estate project in Moscow during the White House race even as he publicly said he had no business interests in Russia.
The White House had no comment on Mr Cohen’s testimony but Mr Trump earlier on Wednesday accused his former employee of lying.
Republican lawmakers at the hearing tried to undermine Mr Cohen, portraying him as an irredeemable liar who had benefited from financial crimes he pleaded guilty to last year, and saying the hearing was an opening gambit in a Democratic push to impeach Mr Trump.
Mr Cohen 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. Democrats took control of the House after last year’s congressional elections and called Mr Cohen to testify.
He begins serving a three-year prison sentence in May.
“I am ashamed because I know what Mr Trump is. He is a racist. He is a conman. He is a cheat,” Mr Cohen said.
He said he was directed by Mr Trump in 2016 to make a $130,000 payment to adult-film star Stormy Daniels to cover up an extra-marital affair.
That payment could amount to an illegal in-kind contribution by Mr Cohen to the campaign because it exceeded donation limits and was not disclosed in Mr Trump’s campaign finance reports, legal experts say.
Mr Trump has denied having sex with Ms Daniels and said the payments to her and another woman who claimed an affair were not illegal.
Mr Cohen turned over to the committee a copy of a $35,000 check Mr Trump signed on August 1, 2017, one in a series he said was to reimburse him for paying off Ms Daniels after Mr Trump took office.
The sweeping claims against Mr Trump, from a man who once said he would take a bullet for his boss, come as Mr Mueller appears to be close to completing his investigation into possible collusion between Mr Trump’s campaign and Russian efforts to sway the vote.
US officials have said the emails released by WikiLeaks were stolen by Russia as part of Moscow’s campaign of hacking and propaganda during the presidential race aimed at sowing discord in the United States and harming Clinton.
Mr Trump has previously denied knowing in advance about the release of hacked Democratic National Committee emails during the election.
Mr Cohen said he was in Mr Trump’s office in July 2016 when Roger Stone, a self-described “dirty trickster” and longtime political adviser to Mr Trump, called the then Republican presidential candidate.
He said Mr Stone told Mr 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 Ms Clinton’s campaign.
“Mr Cohen’s statement is untrue,” Mr Stone said in an email, but did not specify which parts of the statement he meant.
Mr Stone was indicted by Mueller on charges of lying to Congress about his communications with others related to WikiLeaks email dumps.