WASHINGTON — It took more than five hours of confrontational exchanges, but Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee finally managed to regain the narrative in their questioning of Corey Lewandowski, Donald Trump’s former campaign manager who in 2017 was enlisted by the president to curb the investigation into Russian electoral interference by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
The hearing began on Tuesday afternoon with Lewandowski deftly rebuffing Democratic attempts to find out more about the meeting he had with Trump in the Oval Office on June 19, 2017. During that meeting, Trump wanted Lewandowski to prevail on then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who had recused himself from the Russia investigation, to somehow bring the investigation to a close. Lewandowski ultimately declined to approach Sessions, who was fired by Trump in late 2018. Mueller continued his investigation and his report on electoral interference, as well as Trump’s alleged obstruction of investigations into that interference, releasing it to the public in April of this year.
In the opening hours of his testimony, Lewandowski sparred with the committee’s chairman, Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., and the committee’s other Democrats, to the delight of the president. Republicans on the committee frequently came to Lewandowski’s defense, depicting the closely watched proceedings as little more than a political spectacle engineered by Trump’s political enemies.
“It’s a disaster so far,” said former federal prosecutor Joyce Alene White Vance on MSNBC as Lewandowski continued to irritate Democrats with evasive non-answers. “I don’t think that this is going the way Democrats intended for it to go.”
But things took a marked turn in the final half-hour, when Lewandowski was questioned by Barry Berke, a respected criminal defense attorney hired by the committee’s Democrats in February. Along with Berke, the Democrats hired Norman L. Eisen, the former Obama ethics lawyer who has been an unrelenting critic of the Trump administration. Eisen sat grimly behind Berke as the latter conducted a relentless cross-examination of the afternoon’s sole witness (two other Trump administration officials, Rob Porter and Rick Dearborn, had been subpoenaed to testify, but the White House cited executive privilege in instructing them not to appear, a request with which both men complied).
By the time Berke’s moment came, it was approaching the dinner hour on the East Coast and it was unclear just how many Americans had the stamina to stay with the hearing until its end. Still, Berke managed to do what none of the committee’s Democrats could, puncturing Lewandowski’s aura of impregnable bravado.
Berke did so by circumventing Lewandowski’s frequent claims of executive privilege, as well as instructions from the White House that he discuss only what was in Mueller’s report. Berke zeroed in on Lewandowski’s media appearances, as well as his writing on the Trump administration.
At the opening of his questioning, Berke played a clip of Lewandowski appearing on “Meet the Press” in March 2018 and telling host Chuck Todd that he had not yet been approached by Mueller or his team for an interview. In fact, such an interview was to take place shortly, as Berke pointed out, the obvious suggestion being that Lewandowski had lied, and the deeper implication being that he had been untruthful in other instances as well.
To reinforce the point, Berke played another clip of Lewandowski on MSNBC in February. In that interview, Lewandowski said that he did not remember the president asking him to “get involved” in the Russia investigation. Mueller’s report would in fact make clear that Trump did make such a request.
Berke drove the point home. “That wasn’t true, was it, sir?” he pressed Lewandowski.
“I have no obligation to be honest with the media,” Lewandowski responded. The statement may have won him plaudits from Trump, but it did little to help his credibility.
As the questioning continued, Republican strategist Emily J. Miller, who sat directly behind Lewandowski, looked increasingly uncomfortable. Lewandowski himself also seemed bothered by Berke’s attacks, far more than he had been by the hours-long fusillade from Democrats.
Delivering his questions in a disarmingly measured, nasal tone — a contrast to the displays of confrontation many of the committee’s Democrats had favored — Berke clearly rattled Lewandowski, making some observers wonder why his questioning had been saved until the very end. His central point was that Lewandowski did not confront Sessions about the Mueller investigation because he knew that doing so would be illegal. And that, in turn, could allow Democrats to argue that Trump’s request to Lewandowski constituted an obstructive act, one that could be grounds for impeachment.
Lewandowski tried to deflect questions about the legality of Trump’s request by noting that he “didn’t have the privilege of going to Harvard Law,” as Berke did. He referred to Berke’s education, at Harvard Law and Duke University before that, on two other occasions, in what could have been an attempt to play at the cultural grievances of Trump loyalists suspicious of cultural and political elites. Meanwhile, on Twitter, Republican strategist Miller branded Berke an “unelected lawyer” who, in her view, had no business questioning Lewandowski.
And though it took all of six hours, Berke managed to finally vault over the barrier of executive privilege that Lewandowski and the White House had erected in order to keep him from answering questions about his interactions with Trump. “Sir, didn’t you publish a book in which you disclosed these very conversations you had with senior White House officials?” Berke asked.
Lewandowski had done just that with “Let Trump Be Trump: The Inside Story of His Rise to the Presidency.” “It’s a hell of a book,” Lewandowski said, adding later that it was “available at fine bookstores everywhere.” In a subsequent exchange, he counseled Berke to “buy the book. It’s very good.”
While it is not known whether Berke himself purchased a copy of “Let Trump Be Trump,” or what he thinks of Lewandowski’s literary efforts, he does appear to have read it quite closely. He pointed out that Lewandowski recounts in that book — co-written with former Trump adviser David N. Bossie — that he met with Trump at the White House in May 2017, about a month before their meeting about Sessions. During the May meeting, Lewandowski wrote that Trump wanted to hire him and Bossie to “restore order in the West Wing.”
Berke also pointed to another passage, which has then chief of staff Reince Priebus and political strategist Steve Bannon averring that Lewandowski would handle the administration’s response to the Russia investigation.
“Now you thought this was an incredible opportunity,” Berke asked, “as you wrote?”
Lewandowski agreed that it was an “incredible opportunity,” especially after “growing up poor in Lowell, Massachusetts,” and not attending Duke and Harvard Law, as Berke had.
The point seemed to be that when Trump went to Lewandowski several weeks later with the request to reach out to Sessions, he was asking a trustworthy top adviser to carry out a sensitive task, one that could be seen as an audition for the West Wing. And that Lewandowski, far from a naive aide lacking a Harvard Law degree, perfectly understood the perils of carrying out that request, even with a coveted administration position on the line.
Growing increasingly animated, Berke then questioned Lewandowski about the broad conclusions of the report, which Lewandowski admitted to not having read. He wondered why, at an event a week before, Lewandowski had signed copies of the report, an act that seemed to make light of the fact that he is mentioned more than 100 times in its nearly 500 pages.
Berke was not amused. “Sir, do you take the report lightly?” he asked.
Lewandowski said that he was “outraged” by suggestions that he had questioned “the validity” of Mueller’s conclusions about Russian interference. He did not say if the report’s second volume, which deals with the Trump administration’s obstructive efforts, was similarly valid.
Shortly after that exchange, Berke’s half-hour was over, and it was time for Republican staff counsel to question Lewandowski. The committee’s ranking member, Doug Collins, R-Ga., tried to assume that role.
Upon hearing this, Nadler visibly slumped in his chair, his face marked by some combination of exhaustion and disgust.
“You’re not staff,” he said.
“Yes, I am,” an ever-feisty Collins protested.
They continued to argue, but Nadler would not budge. Collins said the proceedings were “a sham,” and that he would not participate in them any further. And so the hearing concluded, with a fitting final flourish of theater.
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