Donald Trump's former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen has told Congress the President is a "racist" and "conman" and knew in advance about hacked Clinton emails supplied to WikiLeaks by Russia.

In explosive public testimony on Wednesday morning local time, Cohen claimed Trump essentially directed him to lie about their work on a real estate project with Russia that continued well into the presidential campaign.

Trump, in Vietnam for a second nuclear summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, refused to comment on Cohen to reporters, but attack his one-time "fixer" on Twitter.

"Michael Cohen was one of many lawyers who represented me (unfortunately)," Trump tweeted. "He was just disbarred by the State Supreme Court for lying & fraud. He did bad things unrelated to Trump."

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Trump tweeted that Cohen
Trump tweeted that Cohen "did bad things" as he tried to divert attention from the political crisis in Washington at his Vietnam summit with Kim Jong-un. Photo / AP

A White House official told CNN the President was expected to stay up overnight in Hanoi to watch the testimony at his hotel.

Cohen is testifying before the House of Representatives Oversight Committee on the second of three much-anticipated days of testimony on Capitol Hill. Tuesday's first session at the Senate was held behind closed doors.

Republican senator Lindsey Graham called it a "new low" for Democrats to be holding hearings with Cohen while Trump was in Vietnam, while the GOP's ranking member of the committee Jim Jordan called the ex-lawyer a "patsy" for the left.

The testimony was briefly delayed as Republicans asked for a vote on delaying the testimony because the transcript had been submitted too late. The vote failed.

Cohen, 52, worked closely with Trump for more than 12 years and became vice president of the Trump Organisation, where he was the billionaire property magnate's behind-the-scenes "fixer". Last year, Cohen pleaded guilty to illegally using campaign funds for hush money payments to two women who said they had affairs with Trump.

The President denies the liaisons. He tweeted that Cohen is "lying in order to reduce his prison time", even though he has already been sentenced.

Cohen pleaded guilty to lying to Congress in testimony in 2017 when he sought to cover up Trump's pursuit of the Moscow real estate project during the presidential election campaign. Cohen, who blamed his "ambition and the intoxication of Trump power" for his "bad decisions", will soon start serving three years in prison.

"I am ashamed of my weakness and misplaced loyalty — of the things I did for Mr Trump in an effort to protect and promote him," said Cohen. "I am ashamed that I chose to take part in concealing Mr Trump's illicit acts rather than listening to my own conscience.

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"I am ashamed because I know what Mr. Trump is. He is a racist. He is a conman. He is a cheat."

Donald Trump is furious at Michael Cohen and is trying hard to discredit him as his former lawyer gives damning testimony against him. Photo / AP
Donald Trump is furious at Michael Cohen and is trying hard to discredit him as his former lawyer gives damning testimony against him. Photo / AP

Cohen described Trump as "a man who ran for office to make his brand great, not to make our country great" in his damning testimony. "He had no desire or intention to lead this nation — only to market himself and to build his wealth and power. Mr Trump would often say, this campaign was going to be the 'greatest infomercial in political history.'"

Cohen said he kept working on the Trump Tower project in Moscow well into the campaign and did not stop in January 2016 as he originally claimed. Trump has insisted he had no dealings in Russia during the campaign.

"Mr Trump knew of and directed the Trump Moscow negotiations throughout the campaign and lied about it," said Cohen. "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 said Trump did not directly tell him to lie, but "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" and "in his way, he was telling me to lie."

He stated that Trump had advanced knowledge through longtime adviser Roger Stone that WikiLeaks planned to publish hacked emails from presidential opponent Hillary Clinton's campaign.

Cohen testifies before the House Oversight and Reform Committee in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington. Photo / AP
Cohen testifies before the House Oversight and Reform Committee in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington. Photo / AP

Cohen testified that Trump, when he learned this from Stone, said, "Wouldn't that be great?" The lawyer stated that he did not have direct evidence that Trump or his campaign colluded with Russia to defeat Clinton, but had suspicions.

Trump has repeatedly denied any prior knowledge of a June 2016 meeting in Trump Tower in New York during which a representative of Russia's government offering dirt on Clinton met with Donald Trump Jr and senior campaign officials.

But Cohen said that in 2017, as he read media coverage of the meeting, "something clicked in my mind." He said he then recalled a meeting with Trump in early June 2016 in which his son Donald Trump Jr walked into the room, approached his father and said in a low voice "the meeting is all set".

Cohen — who admits he was "mesmerised" by his boss — added: "I remember Mr Trump saying, 'OK, good ... Let me know.'"

Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez arrives at Michael Cohen's hearing. Photo / AP
Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez arrives at Michael Cohen's hearing. Photo / AP

The former lawyer said Trump had always told him his son had "the worst judgment of anyone in the world" and Cohen did not believe Donald Jr would ever a big meeting without first checking with his father.

"I also knew that nothing went on in Trump world, especially the campaign, without Mr Trump's knowledge and approval," added Cohen. "So, I concluded that Don Jr was referring to that June 2016 Trump Tower meeting about dirt on Hillary with the Russian representative."

Cohen shared three years of Trump's financial statements and a cheque he said his boss wrote from his personal bank account — after he became President — "to reimburse me for the hush money payments I made to cover up his affair with an adult film star and prevent damage to his campaign". He said Trump told him to "lie to his wife about it."

Cohen provided the committee with a cheque he said Trump wrote from his personal account to reimburse the lawyer for a hush payment to adult film star Stormy Daniels. Photo / AP
Cohen provided the committee with a cheque he said Trump wrote from his personal account to reimburse the lawyer for a hush payment to adult film star Stormy Daniels. Photo / AP

He produced a scribbled note he claimed showed Trump wanted Cohen to arrange for someone to bid on a portrait of him, before reimbursing the bidder from the account of his non-profit charitable foundation. Cohen also produced copies of letters he says he wrote at Trump's direction that threatened his high school, colleges, and the College Board not to release his grades or SAT scores.

"It was my experience that Mr Trump inflated his total assets when it served his purposes, such as trying to be listed among the wealthiest people in Forbes, and deflated his assets to reduce his real estate taxes."

Cohen said Trump also told him to give vague answers when questioned about the bone spur that apparently prevented him from serving in the Vietnam War, commenting: "You think I'm stupid, I wasn't going to Vietnam."

Cohen, pictured arriving to testify on Wednesday, says Trump is a
Cohen, pictured arriving to testify on Wednesday, says Trump is a "racist", a "conman" and a "cheat". Photo / AP

When Barack Obama was President, Cohen claimed, Trump "asked me if I could name a country run by a black person that wasn't a 's**thole.'"

The White House has been focused on damage control, pointing out that Cohen is headed to prison for three years for his crimes and labelling him a convicted liar.

"Disgraced felon Michael Cohen is going to prison for lying to Congress and making other false statements," said White House press secretary Sarah Sanders from Hanoi. "Sadly, he will go before Congress this week and we can expect more of the same

"It's laughable that anyone would take a convicted liar like Cohen at his word."

The former lawyer also asked the committee "to ensure that my family be protected from Presidential threats", after delaying his testimony following Trump's repeated verbal onslaughts on Cohen and his father-in-law.

He claimed his family had been victims of "personal scurrilous attacks" and that he had been smeared as "a rat" by the President, "much like a mobster would do when one of his men decides to cooperate with the government."