Washington: President Donald Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen was grilled on their relationship in a closed Senate hearing Tuesday, the first of three that could produce explosive new revelations about the US leader.
Cohen was expected to face tough questions in the Senate Intelligence Committee about lies he told them in 2017 to cover up Trump’s pursuit of a lucrative Moscow real estate project during the previous year’s presidential election.
Cohen’s claim that Trump ordered him to arrange hush payments ahead of the election to two women with whom the real estate mogul allegedly had affairs was also expected to be a key topic.
Committee member Susan Collins, a Republican senator, told journalists during a break in the hearing that Cohen had been answering their questions, but gave no further information.
The hearing was behind closed doors to enable the discussion of matters related to Russian election meddling still under investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
Tuesday’s hearing was a prelude to the televised open session in front of the House Oversight Committee on Wednesday, where he will detail “chilling” and “personal, front-line experiences” of incidents and conduct by Trump, according to Cohen’s lawyer Lanny Davis.
According to media reports citing sources close to Cohen, he will allege criminal conduct by the president and detail Trump’s “lies, racism and cheating” and questionable business conduct.
CNN reported that Trump is planning to watch the Wednesday hearing live from Hanoi in between summit talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un over North Korea’s nuclear weapons.
But Trump’s spokeswoman Sarah Sanders dismissed the looming testimony, saying Cohen lacked credibility.
“Disgraced felon Michael Cohen is going to prison for lying to Congress and making other false statements. Sadly, he will go before Congress this week and we can expect more of the same,” Sanders said, adding: “It’s laughable that anyone would take a convicted liar like Cohen at his word.”
Pressure on the White House
The hearings, including a third, closed session Thursday in the House Intelligence Committee, come as Congress seeks its own answers to questions about alleged election collusion between Trump’s 2016 campaign and the Russians, his real estate business with Russians, his taxes, and other issues.
With the Democrats now in control of the House of Representatives, the hearings add to the pressure on the White House from Mueller’s ongoing investigation.
Cohen, who worked for Trump for more than a decade, becoming vice president of the Trump Organization, could offer the most detailed view yet of the billionaire president by a former confidant.
“We think he has a lot to offer,” Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday.
Republicans sought to undermine his testimony, labelling Cohen a “convicted liar.”
But since he pleaded guilty to charges last year, Mueller’s team has met with him at least seven times and called his cooperation “credible” and “useful.”
Focus on Trump hush payments
Cohen’s Congressional testimony comes ahead of his incarceration for a three-year prison sentence handed down in December after he pleaded guilty to bank fraud, tax evasion and campaign finance violations, and lying in earlier testimony to the Senate panel.
In a key aspect of his case - the illegal use of campaign funds for hush payments ahead of the 2016 election - Cohen told prosecutors that he was ordered to do so by Trump himself, directly implicating the president in a crime.
Trump blamed Cohen for mishandling the payments.
Cohen could also implicate the White House in the false testimony he gave to the House and Senate intelligence committees in 2017 on negotiations for building a Trump Tower in Moscow.
“Who would have been aware of the false testimony that he was giving?” asked Schiff. “What other light can he shed now that he’s cooperating on issues of obstruction of justice or collusion?”