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Washington — Two Michigan Democrats zeroed in Wednesday on accusations of racism against President Donald Trump by his former lawyer, Michael Cohen, during a fiery congressional hearing on Capitol Hill.  

U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, blasted "racism from a sitting president" in response to anecdotes alleged by Cohen about Trump insulting the intelligence of African-Americans and stereotyping how they live. 

"I can only imagine what's being said in private," said Lawrence, who is black. 

Lawrence also rebuked her committee colleague Rep. Mark Meadows, R-North Carolina, for citing the opinion of longtime Trump employee and family friend Lynne Patton — now an official with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — to dispute claims that Trump is racist.

"To prop up one member of our entire race of black people and say that that nullifies that is totally insulting," Lawrence said. 

Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, also criticized the idea, saying Patton was used as a "prop." 

"Just because someone has a person of color, a black person, working for them does not mean they aren't racist, and it is insensitive to the fact that someone would actually use a prop — a black woman in this chamber, in this committee — is alone racist in itself," Tlaib said. 

Meadows, who said he has nieces and nephews of color, angrily objected to Tlaib's characterization, asking that her words be stricken from the record.

"It’s racist to suggest that I asked her to come in here for that reason," Meadows said. 

"She loves this family. She came in because she felt like the president of the United States was getting falsely accused."

Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, asked Tlaib to clarify. She said she was not calling Meadows a racist. 

"To my colleague Mr. Meadows, that was not my intention, and I do apologize if that's what it sounded like, but I said 'someone' in general," Tlaib said. 

Cummings and Tlaib had a private conversation on the dais after the hearing. 

Several Republicans rehashed Cohen’s financial crimes in an effort to discredit him,  while Democrats pressed Cohen on the president's business practices and whether he provided false disclosures to hide hush payments.

Cohen last year pleaded guilty to lying to Congress and to campaign finance violations connected to payments to two women who alleged they had sex with Trump.

Republicans tried to portray him as a disgruntled former employee lashing out because he didn’t get a job at the White House after his boss’ election.

“Let’s be clear: This is a total sideshow to distract from @realDonaldTrump’s accomplishments overseas,” tweeted Republican National Committee Chair Ronna Romney McDaniel of Michigan.

“Democrats have invited someone to testify to Congress who is literally going to jail, in part, for lying to Congress under oath.”

Trump's campaign called Cohen a felon and perjurer who lied to both Congress and special counsel Robert Mueller. 

"Now, he offers what he says is evidence, but the only support for that is his own testimony, which has proven before to be worthless," campaign spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany said. 

"As noted by the Southern District of New York, Cohen's wide array of crimes were 'marked by a pattern of deception that permeated his professional life' and his 'instinct to blame others is strong.'" 

Cohen, who is scheduled to begin a three-year prison sentence in May, apologized under oath for his lies and for lying to lawmakers.

“The last time I appeared before Congress, I came to protect Mr. Trump. Today, I’m here to tell the truth about Mr. Trump,” Cohen said.

Cohen, a graduate of Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Lansing, noted he lost his law license the previous day and is no longer part of the bar. He said he's never asked for a pardon from Trump, nor would he accept one.

Democrats questioned Cohen about his knowledge of hacked Wikileaks emails, his pursuit of a Trump Tower project in Moscow and whether Cohen believes Trump colluded with Russia.

“I wouldn’t use the word colluding. Was there something odd about the back and forth praise with President Putin? Yes. But I’m not really sure I can answer that question in terms of collusion,” Cohen said, noting he wasn’t part of the campaign.

“Trump’s desire to win would have him work with anyone.”

Tlaib asked Cohen if he thought Trump was making decisions in the best interest of the American people.

“No, I don't," he replied. 

“Especially those you said that you can use horrible words about, like African Americans, Muslim Americans and immigrants?" Tlaib said. 

"Yes," Cohen responded. 

Cohen told lawmakers that his appearance before the lawmakers caused his family to be the "target of personal, scurrilous attacks by the president and his lawyer."

"Mr. Trump called me a ‘rat’ for choosing to tell the truth, much like a mobster would do when one of his men decides to cooperate with the government," Cohen said in his opening remarks, including copies to the panel of tweets posted by Trump.

When asked by Lawrence about Cohen's claims of intimidation by the president, Cohen implied he fears potentially violent acts against him by Trump allies. 

"What do you think he can do to you?" Lawrence asked. 

"A lot. And it’s not just him. It’s those people who follow him and his rhetoric," Cohen replied. 

"What is 'a lot'?" Lawrence said. 

"I don't know," Cohen said. "I don't walk with my wife if we go to a restaurant or go somewhere. I don't walk with my children. I make them go before me because I'm — I have fear, and it's the same fear that I had before." 

Cohen warned GOP lawmakers about making his same mistake by trying to protect Trump.

“I just find it interesting, sir, that between yourself and your colleagues, that not one question so far since I’m here has been asked about Mr. Trump,” Cohen told the committee’s ranking Republican, Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio.

Michigan GOP Rep. Justin Amash, a frequent Trump critic, later on did ask Cohen about his former boss, including why Trump had hired him and how Trump sometimes communicated his wishes indirectly. 

Amash, who represents the Grand Rapids area, quoted Cohen's testimony about Trump not asking him to lie to Congress, because "that’s not how he operates." 

"He doesn’t give you questions. He doesn’t give you orders. He speaks in a code," Cohen said. "And I understand the code because I've been around him a decade." 

Amash said, "Mr. Cohen, I don't know if we should believe you today, but I'm going to ask you this one last question: What is the truth that you know Mr. Trump fears most?"

Hours into a hearing replete with fiery revelations about his former employer, Cohen appeared stumped.

"That's a tough question, sir," Cohen said. "I don't have an answer for that one."

Amash went on to ask Cohen what principles Cohen had chosen to follow in his life.

"I've always tried to be a good person. I've tried to be a great friend," Cohen said. 

"Am I perfect? No. Did I make mistakes? Have I made mistakes? Absolutely. I'm going to pay the consequences for it. But all I would like to do is be able to get my life back, to protect my wife and my children, support them and grow old. That's pretty much where I'd like to be."

"You feel like you're following a different set of principles now than you were following throughout your life?" Amash asked. 

"I do. And I'm trying. I'm trying very hard," Cohen replied. "I thank you for your questions. Some of the other ones really make it difficult to try to, you know, show some redemption."

mburke@detroitnews.com 

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