WASHINGTON: Donald Trump's former personal lawyer Michael Cohen called the US president a conman, a cheat and a racist in explosive congressional testimony on Wednesday (Feb 27), saying he was ashamed of a decade of working for the real estate billionaire.
Trump's disgraced former fixer was giving evidence as Congress prepares for the final report from a probe into possible collusion between his campaign and Russia - and with the president in Vietnam for a second historic summit with North Korea.
Cohen - who is about to go to jail for three years after admitting financial crimes and lying to Congress - said Trump directed him in an illegal scheme to pay hush money to a porn star, and knew in advance in 2016 that WikiLeaks would publish dirt on Hillary Clinton, despite Trump's denials of both.
He also said Trump directed negotiations for a Trump Tower in Moscow through the 2016 election campaign even while denying any business ties with the Russians.
Cohen said Trump implicitly directed him to lie about the project, and that White House lawyers "reviewed and edited" his testimony in 2017 when he lied to Congress about the Trump Tower negotiations.
But Cohen, 52, also said he had no direct evidence that Trump or his 2016 campaign colluded with Russians - the central focus of Justice Department and congressional investigations.
Cohen told lawmakers he was "ashamed" of his decade-long role as the president's personal lawyer and "fixer" for sensitive problems.
"I am ashamed because I know what Mr Trump is. He is a racist. He is a conman. He is a cheat," Cohen said.
"Today, I am here to tell the truth about Mr Trump," he said.
Democratic Chairman Elijah Cummings said Cohen's testimony was "deeply disturbing, and it should be troubling to all Americans."
"If it is as explosive as it appears to be, I think that it is the beginning of an impeachment process," Democratic Representative Jackie Speier, another member of the panel, told NPR radio early on Wednesday.
Trump, in Hanoi for a second nuclear summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, responded to the early release of the testimony by trying to discredit Cohen.
"Michael Cohen was one of many lawyers who represented me (unfortunately)," Trump tweeted.
"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."
Cohen appeared drawn as he began his testimony before the House of Representatives Oversight Committee, the only open and televised hearing of three scheduled for him this week on Capitol Hill.
On Tuesday, he spent eight hours behind closed doors at the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election and the Trump campaign's behaviour.
On Thursday, he will testify in a closed session at the House Intelligence Committee, also investigating Russian election interference, as well as Trump's business relations with Russians.
Cohen's testimony was greeted by a hail of counterattacks from Republicans.
Late on Tuesday, Representative Matt Gaetz, a close Trump ally, tweeted a veiled threat addressed to Cohen.
"Do your wife & father-in-law know about your girlfriends? Maybe tonight would be a good time for that chat. I wonder if she'll remain faithful when you're in prison. She's about to learn a lot," Gaetz wrote.
Democrats expressed outrage at the tweet, accusing Gaetz of illegal witness intimidation.
FOCUS ON TRUMP AND RUSSIANS
Addressing a key focus of the federal and congressional investigations into Russian meddling, Cohen said he did not have "direct evidence" of collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow.
"But I have my suspicions," he added.
He said he believes that Trump was informed ahead of time about a meeting between his campaign and a Russian lawyer peddling "dirt" on Trump's election rival Hillary Clinton.
And he said he was present in mid-2016 when Republican campaign consultant Roger Stone called Trump to inform him that WikiLeaks was about to publish damaging information on Clinton that it got from Russian hackers.
"Mr Trump responded by stating to the effect of 'wouldn't that be great,'" Cohen said.
On race, Cohen said America has seen Trump woo white supremacists and bigots but that 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 's***hole.' This was when Barack Obama was president of the United States," Cohen said.