Washington, February 27: In a testimony which is bound to draw flak towards United States President Donald Trump, his former personal lawyer Michael Cohen told the Congress that Trump was aware "beforehand" of the WikiLeaks email which tarnished the then Democrat presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton's image ahead of the 2016 elections.
Cohen's claims that Trump had advance knowledge of the emails contradict the President's assertions that he was in the dark, but it was not clear what evidence Cohen had to support the allegation or even how legally problematic it would be for Trump. Wikileaks Founder Julian Assange Charged in an Unrelated Case in US: Prosecutors.
Special counsel Robert Mueller has not suggested that mere awareness of WikiLeaks' plans, as Trump confidant Roger Stone is purported to have had, is by itself a crime.
Cohen arrived in the hearing room just before the session was to start. An earlier restriction that the hearing was not to delve into Russia would not be followed, said House Reform and Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings of Maryland.
Republicans on the committee tried to block the hearing as it got underway, on grounds that Cohen had not provided his opening statement long enough in advance. Democrats rejected the effort to postpone the proceedings.
Cohen said Trump did not directly tell him to lie, but "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."
Cohen said that "in his way, he was telling me to lie." He added that lawyers for Trump had "reviewed and edited" the statement in which Cohen falsely said a proposal for a Trump Tower in Moscow had been abandoned in January 2016. Cohen has since said he continued pursuing the project for Trump for months after that.
In the prepared testimony, Cohen apologised for his actions. "I am ashamed that I chose to take part in concealing Mr Trump's illicit acts rather than listening to my own conscience," he said.
Trump, at a Vietnam hotel before a planned meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and unable to ignore the drama playing out thousands of miles away, lashed out at Cohen on Twitter, saying that his lawyer "did bad things unrelated to Trump" and "is lying in order to reduce his prison time."
A judge already has set Cohen's sentence, and Cohen's cooperation before Congress will have no bearing on that term.
Cohen, ahead of his appearance, said Tuesday that the American people could decide "exactly who is telling the truth" when he testified before the House committee, setting the stage for an explosive public hearing that threatened to overshadow Trump's summit in Vietnam with Kim.
On WikiLeaks, Cohen said in the prepared testimony that he was in Trump's office in July 2016 when longtime adviser Roger Stone telephoned Trump. Trump put Stone on speakerphone and Stone told him that he had communicated with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and that "within a couple of days, there would be a massive dump of emails that would damage Hillary Clinton's campaign," according to Cohen.
Trump responded by saying "wouldn't that be great," Cohen said. That month, WikiLeaks released thousands of emails hacked from the Democratic National Committee's server.
"A lot of people have asked me about whether Mr Trump knew about the release of the hacked Democratic National Committee emails ahead of time," Cohen said in the prepared testimony.
"The answer is yes." Cohen said he does not have direct evidence that Trump colluded with the Russian government during the election, but that he has "suspicions."
Of a meeting in Trump Tower between campaign advisers, including Trump's oldest son, and a Russian lawyer, Cohen said that Trump had frequently told him that Donald Trump Jr "had the worst judgment of anyone in the world" and he "would never set up any meeting of any significance alone — and certainly not without checking with his father."
Cohen, once Trump's loyal attorney, has turned on his former boss and cooperated with special counsel Mueller's Russia investigation. He begins a three-year prison sentence in May after pleading guilty to lying to Congress in 2017 and committing campaign finance violations while he was working for Trump.
He met with the Senate intelligence committee for more than nine hours behind closed doors on Tuesday. Cohen said in brief remarks afterward that he appreciated the opportunity to "clear the record and tell the truth" to the panel after acknowledging he lied to the committee in 2017.
(With PTI inputs)