In a damning depiction of Donald Trump, the president’s former lawyer cast him Wednesday as a racist and a con man who used his inner circle to cover up politically damaging allegations about sex and who lied throughout the 2016 election campaign about his business interests in Russia.
Michael Cohen, who previously pleaded guilty to lying to Congress, told lawmakers that Trump had advance knowledge and embraced the news that emails damaging to Hillary Clinton would be released during the campaign. But he also said he had no “direct evidence” that Trump or his aides colluded with Russia to get him elected, the primary question of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
Cohen, shaking off incessant criticism from Republicans anxious to paint him as a felon and liar, became the first Trump insider to pull back the curtain on a version of the inner workings of Trump’s political and business operations. He likened the president to a “mobster” who demanded blind loyalty from underlings and expected them to lie on his behalf to conceal information and protect him—even if it meant breaking the law.
“I am not protecting Mr. Trump anymore,” Cohen declared.
“My loyalty to Mr. Trump has cost me everything: my family’s happiness, friendships, my law license, my company, my livelihood, my honor, my reputation and soon my freedom,” Cohen said. “I will not sit back, say nothing and allow him to do the same to the country.”
Cohen’s matter-of-fact testimony about secret payments and lies unfolded as Trump met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. At a Vietnam hotel and unable to ignore the drama thousands of miles away, Trump lashed out on Twitter, saying Cohen “did bad things unrelated to Trump” and “is lying in order to reduce his prison time.”
In testimony that cut to the heart of federal investigations encircling the White House, Cohen said he arranged a payment of hush money to a porn actress at the president’s behest and agreed to lie about it to the public and the First Lady.
Cohen said Trump was “not knowledgeable” about the transactions even though the president directly arranged for his reimbursement. He said he was left with the unmistakable impression Trump wanted him to lie to Congress about a Moscow real estate project, though the president never directly told him so.
In one revelation, Cohen said prosecutors in New York were investigating conversations Trump or his advisers had with him after his office and hotel room were raided by the FBI last April. Cohen said he could not discuss that conversation, the last contact he said he has had with the president or anyone acting on his behalf, because it remains under investigation.
The appearance marked the latest step in Cohen’s evolution from legal fixer for the president—he once boasted he would “take a bullet” for Trump—to a foe who has implicated him in federal campaign finance violations. The hearing proceeded along parallel tracks, with Democrats focusing on allegations against Trump while Republicans sought to undermine Cohen’s credibility and the proceeding itself.
As Republicans blasted him as a convicted liar, a mostly unrattled Cohen sought to blunt the attacks by repeatedly acknowledging his own failings. He called himself a “fool,” warned lawmakers of the perils of blind loyalty to a leader undeserving of it and pronounced himself ashamed of what he had done to protect Trump.
Cohen is due to begin a three-year prison sentence in May, and described himself as cooperative with multiple investigations in hopes of reducing his time behind bars. He is seen as a vital witness for federal prosecutors because of his proximity to the president during key episodes under investigation and their decade-long professional relationship.
The first of six Trump aides charged in the Trump-Russia investigation to testify publicly about crimes committed during the 2016 campaign and in the months that followed, Cohen also delivered biting personal commentary on a president he said never expected to win in the first place.
“He never expected to win the primary. He never expected to win the general election,” Cohen said. “The campaign—for him—was always a marketing opportunity.”
He recounted how Trump made him threaten schools he attended to not release his grades and SAT scores and denigrated blacks as “too stupid” to vote for him. He said Trump once confided to him that, despite his public explanation of a medical deferment from the Vietnam War because of bone spurs, he never had any intention of fighting there.
“I find it ironic, President Trump, that you are in Vietnam right now,” Cohen said.
Cohen gave lawmakers his first-person account of how he arranged to buy the silence of a porn actress and a Playboy model who said they had sex with Trump. He described a February 2017 conversation with Trump in the Oval Office in which the president reassured him that reimbursement checks sent through Federal Express were coming but would take some time to get through the White House system.
He said the president called him a year later to discuss the public messaging around the transaction and had even once put his wife, Melania, on the phone so Cohen could lie to her.
“Lying to the first lady is one of my biggest regrets,” Cohen said. “She is a kind, good person. I respect her greatly, and she did not deserve that.”
In an allegation relating to Mueller’s probe, Cohen said he overheard Trump confidant Roger Stone telling the candidate in the summer of 2016 that WikiLeaks would release damaging information about Clinton.
Trump put Stone on speakerphone and Stone told him 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. Damaging emails that U.S. officials say were hacked by Russia were later released by WikiLeaks.
Trump responded by saying “wouldn’t that be great,” Cohen said.
Stone disputed that account Wednesday.
Cohen’s claims that Trump had advance knowledge of the emails contradict the president’s assertions that he was in the dark, and it is not clear how legally problematic that could be for Trump anyway. Mueller has not suggested that mere awareness of WikiLeaks’ plans, as Stone is purported to have had, is by itself a crime.
Cohen also suggested Trump implicitly told him to lie about a Moscow real estate project. Cohen has admitted lying about the project, which he says Trump knew about as Cohen was negotiating with Russia during the campaign. 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 he does not have direct evidence that Trump colluded with the Russian government during the election but that he has “suspicions,” including after a June 2016 meeting between the president’s oldest son and a Kremlin-connected lawyer.
“I wouldn’t use the word ‘colluding.’ Was there something odd about the back-and-forth praise with President Putin?” Cohen said. “Yes, but I’m not really sure I can answer that question in terms of collusion.”
Federal prosecutors in New York have said Trump directed Cohen to arrange payments to buy the silence of porn actress Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal in the run-up to the 2016 campaign. Cohen has said he acted out of “blind loyalty.”
He said he was presenting the committee with a copy of a check Trump wrote from his personal bank account after he became president to reimburse Cohen for the hush money payments. He offered up other exhibits as well, including examples of financial statements he said Trump had drawn up to show he was wealthier than he really was.
The first thing I noticed was how slick the undersides of my rented skis were, even on a thin layer of snow on the wet pavement next to my car.
I had never been on skis before. The introduction reminded me of what it’s like when my foot slides forward unexpectedly when I step on a patch of ice.
I braced myself for the daunting, exhilarating uncertainty of the next few hours.
I went to Rockport Park last week to meet Rich Bostwick, a volunteer with Friends of Rockport Park who helps maintain the park’s ski trails. An avid skier, Rich was there to teach me how to cross-country ski so I could write about it.
This meeting was nearly a month in the making. Weather derailed our plans multiple times—too much snow, too little snow, too cold, too icy. When we finally set a date, it came with a single day’s notice.
I rented equipment—skis, poles and boots—from the Janesville recreation office at City Hall. The city oversees this trail, but volunteers are responsible for grooming it.
When Rich grooms, he rides a snowmobile and tows a roller to compress the snow and prevent it from melting quickly. He then returns to flatten areas with a track setter, which embeds deep, narrow paths in the snow to help skiers stay balanced.
Rich carved a loop on the flat soccer field before I arrived. It was here that I would learn the basic stride.
It was also here that I fell for the first of many times.
Cross-country skiing is a full-body workout. You plant a pole into the snow with one arm and propel yourself forward, gliding ahead with the opposite leg. Plant, propel, glide. Plant, propel, glide. Over and over again.
Rich led me to the trailhead after a few laps on the soccer field. He offered an ominous warning before we got there.
“This is not a beginner’s park,” he said.
Rich kept talking, but I didn’t hear him. I was focused on visions of me careening into the woods at top speed.
I tumbled backward as I passed a gentle slope on the way to the trailhead. The slope is hardly noticeable, but it’s my first exposure to a lesson I and most other first-timers struggle to understand: You have to lean forward when going downhill.
As we finally reached the trailhead, it began to sleet—that biting, piercing precipitation with no redeeming value. It didn’t take long for me to fall again—and again and again—as we entered the forest.
I’m in good shape, but I am not a natural athlete. I once gripped a paddleboard so tightly to keep my balance that my feet cramped for hours afterward. I had a feeling another arduous day was in store.
But the temperature dropped just enough for the nasty sleet to turn to snow—soft, fluffy, snow globe-esque snow. It was quiet and peaceful among the trees. The only sounds came from our conversation and a babbling creek that runs along the trail.
The scene is like a postcard.
“We live in a climate where winter is a big thing,” Rich later told me. “You might as well have an activity in the winter that makes you enjoy winter instead of loathe winter. It changes your whole attitude.”
Surrounded by trees and flurries in that moment, I embraced this endless winter.
My falls didn’t stop. It was counterintuitive to me to lean forward when going downhill, and my body struggled to make the adjustment. That’s common, Rich assured me.
I became an expert on falling. It’s best to topple backward and land on your butt. It doesn’t hurt, and your skis likely will remain planted in the tracks. I slipped, popped back up and instantly continued my stride.
Rich remained patient with me the entire time and helped me out of a jam as I tried the snowplow maneuver. It’s a downhill, pigeon-toed technique used on slopes without set tracks. On this mid-grade hill, I needed a hand to stop sliding and get back on my feet.
While Rockport might not be a beginner’s park, many novices come here to learn because of the trail’s variety and accessibility, Rich said. It’s a challenge without being too difficult. Newbies can avoid the few steep hills by using workaround trails.
Rich and I skied about 4 miles on the trail. We had good trail conditions and good weather, neither of which have been common this winter, he said.
The day after our jaunt, Rich packed his car and drove to Hayward for the Birkebeiner, one of the most prestigious cross-country skiing races in the world.
Rich has participated in it before, but he was there to support his wife, Barb Arms, as she competed in the half-distance event.
After a weekend of watching the world’s best skiers, I asked Rich to assess my performance from several days prior. He thought I did “very well” for my first time and should keep practicing when I can.
“You can look at all the videos you want. You can be told a million times to do it this way and that way. But it just takes time after time of doing it. Getting out there and learning it, feeling it. You can’t think your way through. You got to feel your way through it, and I thought you did a good job.
“I hope you consider taking up the sport for real.”
Maybe I will. Just don’t expect to see me at the Birkebeiner.
Janesville School District officials say they are not allowed to reveal if a teacher charged with fourth-offense intoxicated driving faced consequences for his earlier convictions.
Dennis H. Brunner, 50, of 3316 Afton Road, Janesville, also is charged with threatening a law enforcement officer and resisting arrest.
Brunner is on paid leave from his teaching job pending the outcome of court proceedings, and his state teaching license appears to be in jeopardy.
He has worked with the Janesville School District since 1995 and is a physical education teacher at Madison Elementary School, said Patrick Gasper, school district communications specialist.
State Department of Public Instruction online records show Brunner has a “lifetime license” to teach and is qualified to teach physical education and coach athletics from prekindergarten to 12th grade.
The charges stem from an incident Saturday when Janesville police responded to a report of a man down. Police found Brunner in his driveway, passed out at the wheel of his car with the engine still running, according to a criminal complaint filed in Rock County Court.
Brunner later ignored police instructions to stay in his car and became aggressive toward officers. When they told him he was being placed under arrest, he refused to put his hands in the air and was “physically resistant,” according to the complaint.
While on the way to the Rock County Sheriff’s Office, Brunner complained about the charges and said the officer should “hope he doesn’t see him on the street.” When asked what he meant by that, Brunner said, “I know a lot of biker guys,” and “there was going to be a bounty put out” on the officer’s head.
Brunner refused field sobriety tests, but his preliminary breath test revealed an alcohol level of 0.235, almost three times the legal limit, according to the complaint.
Brunner’s earlier convictions include:
In an email response to Gazette questions, Gasper said Brunner was put on leave Tuesday “pending an investigation of allegations and charges filed of criminal activity.”
The school district declined to say if Brunner had ever been placed on leave before or if his prior convictions affected his employment status.
“Personnel files/matters which the SDJ cannot discuss,” Gasper wrote in an email.
The Janesville School District’s policy on criminal behavior states that employees “shall serve as a positive example to students in terms of honesty, integrity and mature behavior.”
The same policy states an employee convicted of a crime will have “his/her criminal action reviewed to determine whether or not it substantially relates to the circumstances of his/her particular job or licensed activity in the district.”
If it is determined that an employee’s crime “is substantially related to the circumstances of the job or licensed activity, the employee is subject to dismissal or other disciplinary action.”
State statutes indicate the state superintendent of schools can revoke a teaching license without a hearing if the person holding the license is convicted of a class H felony under Chapter 940, crimes against life and security.
Brunner has been charged with threat to law enforcement officer, which is a class H felony under Wisconsin Statute 940.203(2).
Brunner is free after posting a $450 cash bond. He is scheduled to be back in court Wednesday, March 20.
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