Washington - President Donald Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen told the US Congress on Wednesday that Trump is a “racist,” a “conman” and a “cheat” who knew in advance about a release of emails by the WikiLeaks website aimed at hurting his 2016 Democratic presidential rival.

Cohen, Trump’s onetime “fixer,” said Trump directed negotiations for a real estate project in Moscow during the White House race even as Trump publicly said he had no business interests in Russia, according to Cohen’s prepared testimony.

“I am ashamed because I know what Mr. Trump is. He is a racist. He is a conman. He is a cheat,” Cohen said in an opening statement to a House of Representatives committee.

“Donald Trump is a man who ran for office to make his brand great, not to make our country great,” Cohen said. “He had no desire or intention to lead this nation - only to market himself and to build his wealth and power.” Although many accusations against Trump emerged in news reports during his 2016 campaign and since he took office, the televised congressional testimony of a former loyalist provides a detailed public record with the potential to influence a large US audience.

The testimony by Cohen that appeared to be most damaging to the president were allegations that Trump knew in advance about a WikiLeaks dump of stolen emails from senior Democrats, that he pursued plans to build a Trump Tower in Moscow deep into the 2016 campaign and that he was directly involved in reimbursing Cohen for hush money payments.

But Trump will take comfort in Cohen’s assertion that he had no direct knowledge of any collusion between his 2016 campaign team and Russia to influence the election, and will likely dismiss Cohen as a liar out to take down his former employer to save his own skin.

The sweeping claims against Trump, from a man who once said he would take a bullet for his boss, come as Special Counsel Robert Mueller appears to be close to completing his investigation into possible collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russian efforts to sway the vote.

The hearing before a Democratic-led House panel got off to a contentious start when the committee’s top Republican tried but failed to postpone the session, complaining there was not enough time to review Cohen’s written testimony.

Republicans questioned Cohen’s credibility and said the hearing was the opening gambit in an effort by Democrats, who took control of the House in November’s congressional elections, to impeach Trump.

Representative Elijah Cummings, the Democrat who chairs the panel, said Americans could judge Cohen’s credibility for themselves. “The days of this committee protecting the president at all costs are over. They’re over,” Cummings said.

Cohen, who said he would hand over documents to support his assertions, said Trump ordered him to pay $130,000 to adult film actress Stormy Daniels to cover up an affair in violation of campaign finance laws, and also told Cohen to lie about it to first lady Melania Trump.

The president, who has denied any collusion between his campaign and Moscow, has called the Mueller investigation a “witch hunt” and has called Cohen a liar trying to reduce his prison time and a “rat.” “He did bad things unrelated to Trump. He is lying in order to reduce his prison time,” Trump said in a post on Twitter on Wednesday from Vietnam, where he was meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to try to break a stalemate over the North’s nuclear weapons.

Later, sitting alongside Kim, Trump did not answer reporters’ questions about Cohen, who is scheduled to begin a three-year prison term in May after pleading guilty to multiple criminal charges.

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 Trump rival Hillary Clinton.

Trump has previously denied knowing in advance about the WikiLeaks release of Democratic National Committee (DNC) emails during the election.

Cohen said he was in Trump’s office in July 2016 when Roger Stone, a self-described “dirty trickster” and longtime political adviser to Trump, called the Republican presidential candidate.

Cohen said Stone told 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 Clinton’s campaign.