HANOI — On President Trump’s first full day here Wednesday, he sought to project American power. He announced billions of dollars in Vietnamese aircraft purchases, basked in the crowds lining the highways, bantered with flag-waving schoolchildren and prepared to try to convince North Korea’s dictator to give up his nuclear weapons.
But Trump was undermined by simultaneous betrayal back home. Prepared written testimony from his former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, surfaced overnight in Washington detailing the president’s alleged criminality, cons, lies and racism.
Two hours before opening his high-stakes summit in Hanoi by meeting one on one with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and joining him and a handful of advisers for a social dinner, Trump teed off about Cohen.
“Michael Cohen was one of many lawyers who represented me (unfortunately),” Trump wrote on Twitter. “He had other clients also. He was just disbarred by the State Supreme Court for lying & fraud. He did bad things unrelated to Trump. He is lying in order to reduce his prison time. Using Crooked’s lawyer!”
Cohen’s testimony, which he is scheduled to deliver in person Wednesday on Capitol Hill, was another reminder of Trump’s domestic turmoil and simmering investigative problems just as he began a two-day summit that aides said he scheduled partially to get away from those troubles.
Now, his Vietnam summit is at risk of being overshadowed, as television networks in the United States prepared round-the-clock coverage of Cohen’s testimony and its explosive revelations — an outcome that is likely to enrage the president, observers and advisers said.
“I know what Mr. Trump is,” Cohen wrote in his prepared testimony. “He is a racist. He is a conman. He is a cheat.”
White House officials had hoped Trump would not become distracted overseas by the spectacle of his former attorney and fixer testifying publicly for the first time. But the president’s mind, no matter where he is, often is on domestic issues and his political standing, current and former advisers said.
During a Wednesday afternoon lull at his hotel, Trump took to Twitter to slam one of his domestic critics, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).
“I have now spent more time in Vietnam than Da Nang Dick Blumenthal, the third rate Senator from Connecticut (how is Connecticut doing?),” the president tweeted. “His war stories of his heroism in Vietnam were a total fraud — he was never even there. We talked about it today with Vietnamese leaders!”
Trump was referring to Blumenthal’s admission during his 2010 Senate campaign that he misrepresented his military service. He was in the Marine Corps Reserve, but did his service in the United States, not in Vietnam. Trump has made up false claims about Blumenthal, such as saying the senator brags about his heroism in Da Nang.
For his part, Trump received multiple deferments from the Vietnam draft, citing a bone spur. In his testimony, Cohen recalls that Trump asked him to manage press coverage of his deferments and once told him, “You think I’m stupid, I wasn’t going to Vietnam.
The free-wheeling dynamics, with Cohen testifying in Washington while Trump is trying to conduct diplomacy overseas, threaten to weaken America’s standing abroad, according to Benjamin J. Rhodes, who served as deputy national security adviser under former president Barack Obama.
“The real danger for U.S. credibility and national security is the extent to which the Cohen testimony makes the American president look ridiculous and compromised around the world, which carefully consumes U.S. political news,” Rhodes said. “At home, we can see these things as just another turn in the tabloid drama of the Trump presidency, but the cumulative impact abroad is a steady diminution of America’s standing.”
Longtime Trump observers said the television news coverage Cohen’s testimony is certain to receive is likely to gall the president.
“Nothing else gets to Trump worse than being upstaged,” said Tim O’Brien, author of the biography “Trump Nation: The Art of Being The Donald.”
O’Brien predicted that Cohen’s written testimony would get under the president’s skin because it highlights so many of Trump’s insecurities and perceived weaknesses: His attempts to cover up his academic performance, his lack of service in the Vietnam War, his vanity, his alleged relations with an adult film star and the payments made to her, and allegations of racism.
“It’s an epic troll, one of the most epic trolls of Trump’s life,” O’Brien said.
Rudolph W. Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney, said he did not think the president would pay much attention to Cohen’s testimony. Other advisers said they were sure that he would —even as they wished he would not.
“He’s too busy for that,” Giuliani said in a series of text messages to The Washington Post. “Cohen’s lying is not unexpected.”
Giuliani said Cohen’s prepared remarks were “pathetic,” adding, “This is a lawyer who [taped] his own client when he claimed he was being loyal. If you believe him you are a fool.”
Trump was urging his team to respond to Cohen even before he touched down in Hanoi on Tuesday night, according to one adviser. Republican National Committee officials have been instructed to repudiate Cohen’s testimony by pointing to his past lies to Congress, while White House press secretary Sarah Sanders crafted a statement this week attacking Cohen as a “disgraced felon.”
Advisers have said Trump considers Cohen’s move an act of personal betrayal because he considers himself to be the main promoter of Cohen’s career.
This is not Trump’s first bout with domestic heartache on the road. Trump’s foreign trips have regularly been interrupted by domestic woes: While in Europe last summer, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III indicted a number of Russian agents for attempting to influence the 2016 election on behalf of Trump.
Just before Trump went to Asia in late 2017, Mueller charged his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, as well as deputy campaign manager Rick Gates.
And during his inaugural foreign trip, to Saudi Arabia in May 2017, Trump was largely distracted by Mueller, former aides said. The special counsel had just been appointed after Trump fired FBI Director James B. Comey and then bad-mouthed him to senior Russian diplomats in the Oval Office.
This time, it is Cohen’s testimony that provides the domestic sideshow to Trump’s turn on the world stage. In it, Cohen describes a phone conversation he alleged to overhear between Trump and longtime political adviser Roger Stone in which then-candidate Trump cheered the upcoming illegal release of damaging Democratic emails by WikiLeaks.
Cohen writes that the president repeatedly lied about his involvement in a real estate project in Moscow during the 2016 campaign.
“To be clear: Mr. Trump knew of and directed the Trump Moscow negotiations throughout the campaign and lied about it,” Cohen writes. “He lied about it because he never expected to win the election. He also lied about it because he stood to make hundreds of millions of dollars on the Moscow real estate project.”
Cohen writes that Trump often inflated his assets and describes how he paid off adult film star Stormy Daniels to conceal an alleged affair — including detailing reimbursement payments the president gave him after he was in office.
In addition, Cohen claims Trump ordered him to send threatening letters to keep his academic records — including his SAT scores — from ever being released. And he explains how Trump rigged an auction in the Hamptons so that a painting of himself would fetch the most money, and then used his nonprofit to repay the buyer.
Cohen also describes the president as unconvinced that he could actually win the presidency — and uninterested in doing the job. And he says that Trump often made racist comments, including telling Cohen that black people would not vote for him because they were “too stupid.”
With the president under siege back home, he may have been comforted in Hanoi by his traveling entourage. Spotted at the president’s hotel was Fox News host Sean Hannity, a longtime Trump friend and informal adviser. Just as at the first Trump-Kim summit last year in Singapore, Hannity is scheduled to conduct an interview with the president on Thursday following his meetings with the North Korean autocrat.
Trump was expected to dine with the North Korean dictator on Wednesday evening at the Metropole hotel, a luxury French colonial oasis in the heart of this bustling city, just two hours before Cohen is set to begin testifying.
“The potential is AWESOME, a great opportunity, like almost none other in history, for my friend Kim Jong Un,” Trump tweeted Wednesday morning. “We will know fairly soon – Very Interesting!”