Cohen testimony on Trump: From chilling racism to Russia collusion, the devastating claims that could hasten president's White House exit

Statements from leader's long-time consigliere have potential to gravely damage his chances of remaining president

Kim Sengupta
Diplomatic Editor
Wednesday 27 February 2019 13:32 GMT
Michael Cohen: 'I look forward to' public hearing

Michael Cohen, the long-time consigliere and personal lawyer to Donald Trump, once received an email from a friend since boyhood, Felix Sater, who had become a criminal with gangland connections before becoming a federal informer: “Can you believe that two guys from Brooklyn are going to elect a President?”

Sater had chaperoned Donald Junior and Ivanka to Moscow at Trump’s request. Vladimir Putin, Sater declared, would back a project to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. But this would be just the beginning of a very fruitful relationship: “Our boy can become President of the USA and we can engineer it ... I will get Putin on this programme and we will get Trump elected.”

All this may smack of braggadocio from Sater, born Felix Sheferovsky in Russia. But he was not without influence: he claimed he got Ivanka to sit and be photographed on Putin’s chair in the Kremlin, something she has not denied.

He is now once again helping Federal authorities and Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating whether Trump was the Muscovian candidate for the White House, had arrested and “turned” Cohen.

Cohen may not have “engineered” the election of “Our boy” to the presidency, but this week the man who is said to know where the Trump skeletons are rattling away is giving testimony which has the potential to gravely damage the chances of the president staying in the White House.

Cohen will provide evidence of Trump’s “lies, racism, cheating and conning”, details of his personal finances, including how he allegedly manipulated his income to avoid property tax and, crucially, will supposedly accuse the president of criminal conduct while in office. And he will talk about “Russiagate”, including the Trump Tower deal Sater was involved in.

The alleged criminal conduct is related to hush-money payments made by Cohen on behalf of the president to Stormy Daniels, the adult movie actor who says that she had an affair with Trump a decade ago.

An example of the racism, it is claimed, are remarks Trump reportedly made about the intelligence of black people and the type of lives, in his eyes, that they live.

Cohen’s prepared testimony to the committees, which was initially leaked to The New York Times, will say “In conversations we had during the 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. In his way, he was telling me to lie. Mr Trump did not directly tell me to lie to Congress. That’s not how he operates.

“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,” he will tell the House of Representatives’ oversight and reform committee.

“I am ashamed that I chose to take part in concealing Mr Trump’s illicit acts rather than listening to my own conscience.”

He will also make hugely significant claims about the Russia investigation, saying that Trump was aware that Democratic Party emails, damaging to Hillary Clinton, had been hacked and would be leaked. Some of the allegations concern Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder living at the Ecuadorean embassy in London, and Roger Stone, the president’s friend and adviser who has now been arrested.

Cohen is due to say: “In July 2016, days before the Democratic convention, I was in Mr Trump’s office when his secretary announced that Roger Stone was on the phone. Mr Trump put Mr Stone on the speakerphone.

“Mr Stone told Mr Trump that he had just gotten off the phone with Julian Assange and that Mr Assange told Mr Stone that, within a couple of days, there would be a massive dump of emails that would damage Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Mr Trump responded by stating to the effect of ‘wouldn’t that be great.’”

Cohen, who will begin a three-year sentence on 6 May after pleading guilty to tax crimes, campaign finance violations and lying to Congress, will appear before three Congressional Committees on three consecutive days this week, one in public and two private sessions.

There will be intense focus on his public testimony before the House Oversight Committee on Wednesday, the same day that Trump will be meeting Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, in Vietnam for their second summit. White House officials told CNN that Trump will be watching the proceedings on television during his overnight stay in Hanoi.

Cohen, according to his testimony, will say about Trump’s business practices that: “Mr Trump is a cheat. It was my experience that Mr Trump inflated his total assets when it served his purposes, such as trying to be listed among the wealthiest people in Forbes, and deflated his assets to reduce his real estate taxes.

“Mr Trump directed me to find a straw bidder to purchase a portrait of him that was being auctioned at an Art Hamptons Event. The objective was to ensure that his portrait, which was going to be auctioned last, would go for the highest price of any portrait that afternoon.

The portrait was purchased by the fake bidder for $60,000. Mr Trump directed the Trump Foundation, which is supposed to be a charitable organisation, to repay the fake bidder, despite keeping the art for himself.

“And it should come as no surprise that one of my more common responsibilities was that Mr Trump directed me to call business owners, many of whom were small businesses, that were owed money for their services and told them no payment or a reduced payment would be coming. When I advised Mr Trump of my success, he actually revelled in it.”

The House Oversight Committee’s chairman, Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat, has already stated that Trump’s former lawyer will speak about Trump’s finances, conflicts of interests at the Trump Foundation and the Trump International Hotel. He has also agreed to discuss the “President’s debts and payments relating to efforts to influence the 2016 election”.

Cummings is certainly looking forward to Cohen’s testimony. “This is one moment in history, and when you get to my age and you look back and you realise these moments are very, very significant. It may well be a turning point in our country’s history..., ” he reflected.

“He is the only person that I know who has accused this president of a crime. And I think it’s only fair to the president and to Michael Cohen and to the public that he comes forward so that they’ll have an opportunity to observe his demeanour. Republicans will be able to ask him questions, just like a cross-examination, and they can make their own judgment.”

On Trump’s alleged racism, Cohen is due to say: “The country has seen Mr Trump court white supremacists and bigots. You have heard him call poorer countries “shitholes”. In private, he is even worse. He once asked me if I could name a country run by a black person that wasn’t a “shithole”. This was when Barack Obama was president of the United States.

“While we were once driving through a struggling neighbourhood in Chicago, he commented that only black people could live that way. And, he told me that black people would never vote for him because they were too stupid.”

The Oversight Committee will, supposedly, not stray too much into the Russia inquiry – questions centring on that will come during the closed Senate and House Intelligence Committee hearings. These will look into, among other things, the Trump Tower Moscow project and a meeting in Trump Tower, New York, between a group of Russians, Donald Junior, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, who is now in prison.

Cohen is due to say on the Moscow Tower project: “I lied to Congress about when Mr Trump stopped negotiating the Moscow Tower project in Russia. I stated that we stopped negotiating in January 2016. That was false – our negotiations continued for months later during the campaign. Mr Trump did not directly tell me to lie to Congress. That’s not how he operates.

“In conversations we had during the 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. In his way, he was telling me to lie. You need to know that Mr Trump’s personal lawyers reviewed and edited my statement to Congress about the timing of the Moscow Tower negotiations before I gave it.

“To be clear: Mr Trump knew of and directed the Trump Moscow negotiations throughout the campaign and lied about it. 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 on the Moscow real estate project.”

Cohen returns to Capitol Hill around 18 months after he appeared for the first time before the Senate Intelligence Committee as part of the Russia investigation when he lied about how long discussions about the Trump Tower project had extended into the 2016 campaign. At the time, Mr Trump was praising his lawyer. But then Cohen started co-operating with Mueller and the president accused him of “becoming a rat”.

In the run-up to the testimony, the Trump team has kept up a barrage of insults. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders called the president’s former lawyer a “disgraced felon” and declared that it was “pathetic to see him given yet another opportunity to spread his lies”, and just “ laughable that anyone would take a convicted liar like Cohen at his word.”

Cohen is due to say: “I knew early on in my work for Mr Trump that he would direct me to lie to further his business interests. I am ashamed to say, that when it was for a real estate mogul in the private sector, I considered it trivial.

“As the president, I consider it significant and dangerous. But in the mix, lying for Mr Trump was normalised, and no one around him questioned it. In fairness, no one around him today questions it, either.”

The beginning of the Trump Presidency saw a high number of former military commanders in the administration. But the president appeared to later fall out with the intelligence services and armed forces and regularly traduced senior officers.

Cohen is due to speak about how Trump dodged the Vietnam draft. He is due to say: “Mr Trump tasked me to handle the negative press surrounding his medical deferment from the Vietnam draft. Mr Trump claimed it was because of a bone spur, but when I asked for medical records, he gave me none and said there was no surgery. He told me not to answer the specific questions by reporters but rather offer simply the fact that he received a medical deferment. He finished the conversation with the following comment. “You think I’m stupid, I wasn’t going to Vietnam.”

Democrats hold that a lot of truth about the president will come out in what Cohen has to say. Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said Cohen would be questioned about Kremlin links: “Did they go beyond what he told us about Moscow Trump Tower into other areas as well? Who would have been aware of the false testimony that he was giving? What other light can be shed now that he’s cooperating on issues of obstruction of justice or collusion? What more could be tell us about the Trump Tower New York meeting or any other issues relevant to our investigation. We think he has a lot to offer.”

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