Trump's ex-lawyer Cohen to offer new Russia details to Congress: Source

File photo of former personal attorney for US President Donald Trump. Photograph:( AFP )

Reuters Washington, USA Feb 27, 2019, 07.06 AM (IST)

US President Donald Trump's former personal attorney Michael Cohen will tell lawmakers on Wednesday that Trump asked him several times about a proposed skyscraper project in Moscow long after he secured the Republican presidential nomination, a person familiar with the matter told Reuters.

As Special Counsel Robert Mueller appears to near the end of his probe into whether Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential election in collusion with Trump's campaign, Cohen's assertion that Trump was inquiring about the skyscraper project as late as June 2016, if true, would show Trump remained personally engaged in the venture well into his candidacy.

Cohen was set to offer lawmakers new information about Trump's private affairs over three consecutive days of in-depth discussion with congressional committees that began on Tuesday with a closed hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

The focus of the session, which lasted for roughly 9 hours, was mainly on what Cohen knows about Trump's dealings with Russia, as well as about Cohen's previous lies, two congressional sources said. Cohen apologised to the committee for lying to it in 2017, according to CNN.

In brief comments to the media after the Senate session ended, Cohen said he was looking forward to Wednesday's open hearing in the House where he plans to make his case for why people should believe him over Trump.

"I'm going to let the American people decide exactly who is telling the truth," Cohen said.

Senator Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate committee, suggested Cohen's testimony was important to its probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

"Two years ago when this investigation started, I said it may be the most important thing I'm involved in my public life in the Senate and nothing I have heard today dissuades me from that view," Warner told reporters outside the hearing room.

As Cohen testified, Republican US Representative Matt Gaetz, a Trump ally, suggested in a tweet that there was compromising information about Cohen's private life.

Gaetz later told the Daily Beast that he was not engaging in witness intimidation. "It is challenging the veracity and character of a witness. We do it every day," he said.

The lawmaker does not sit on the House Oversight Committee, which will be conducting Wednesday's hearing with Cohen and therefore will not be allowed to ask him questions.

Lanny Davis, an attorney for Cohen, said: "We will not respond to Mr Gaetz's despicable lies and personal smears, except to say we trust that his colleagues in the House, both Republicans and Democrats, will repudiate his words and his conduct."

Cohen was one of Trump's closest aides and once said he would "take a bullet" for him. But he turned against his former boss last year and is cooperating with prosecutors after pleading guilty to tax evasion, bank fraud and campaign finance violations.

Cohen has said Trump directed him to make hush-money payments to two women who said they had sexual relationships with Trump, in violation of campaign finance laws before the 2016 election.

Trump called Cohen a "rat" after he turned on him, and the White House again attacked Cohen's credibility on Tuesday.

"It's laughable that anyone would take a convicted liar like Cohen at his word, and pathetic to see him given yet another opportunity to spread his lies," White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said.

Trump has denied any collusion between his campaign and Moscow. Russia denies US intelligence agencies' assertions that it interfered in the election.

Cohen has been disbarred, according to a decision by a New York state appeals court in Manhattan made public on Tuesday. Disbarment is automatic in New York for lawyers convicted of felonies.

Michael Monico, a lawyer for Cohen, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

'GRANULAR DETAILS'

On Wednesday, in a public session before the House Oversight Committee, Cohen intends to give lawmakers "granular details" about a hush-money payment to adult-film actress Stephanie Clifford, known as Stormy Daniels, and information about a "money trail" after Trump became president, said the person familiar with the matter, who asked not to be identified.

Cohen will also offer new information on Trump's financial statements that "have never been produced before" relating to how Trump represented the values of his assets in financial transactions and other matters, that person said.

Cohen will also offer first-hand anecdotes to illustrate Trump's "lies, racism and cheating" during the decade Cohen worked for the real estate mogul and provide "evidence of criminal conduct" since he became president, the source said.

Like Tuesday's hearing, his testimony on Thursday with the House Intelligence Committee will also be behind closed doors.

Democrats on the House Oversight Committee plan to question Cohen publicly about Trump's personal finances, including the payments to women, as well as alleged efforts by Trump and his lawyers to intimidate Cohen to try to keep him from testifying.

Last November, Cohen pleaded guilty to lying to Congress by telling lawmakers in 2017 that all efforts relating to the Moscow project had ceased by January 2016. In fact, Cohen said, those efforts continued until June 2016.

Story highlights

Cohen was set to offer lawmakers new information about Trump's private affairs over three consecutive days of in-depth discussion with congressional committees that began on Tuesday with a closed hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee.