WASHINGTON — If former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski’s goal during Tuesday afternoon’s testimony before the House Judiciary Committee was to stonewall and frustrate Democrats, he can safely proclaim his mission accomplished.
Lewandowski was summoned to testify by Democrats on the committee about the Trump campaign’s alleged collusion with Russia during the 2016 election and subsequent efforts to obstruct investigations into such efforts. He had been issued subpoenas along with former top White House aides Rob Porter and Rick Dearborn.
Porter and Dearborn did not show up on Tuesday afternoon, with Porter’s attorney citing direction from White House counsel Pat Cipollone for him to refuse to testify. Lewandowski agreed to appear, but only to discuss matters that were in the report on the Russia investigation made public last spring by former special counsel Robert Mueller. In particular, Democrats hoped to question Lewandowski about Trump instructing him to deliver a message to former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who had recused himself from the Russia investigation, about Trump being treated “very unfairly”’ by Mueller. The exchange between Lewandowski and Mueller took place in the Oval Office, and is described in detail in the Mueller report.
But hopes of a substantive discussion of that episode were dashed moments into Tuesday’s hearing. The theatrics began before Lewandowski spoke a word. In his opening statement, ranking member Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., angrily denounced the hearing as a case of “let’s read the Mueller report for audiobook.” In other words, in his view, House Democrats were simply reciting Mueller’s report over and over, hoping that doing so would lead to Trump’s impeachment. He added that the “impeachment charade” was, in his view, “impulsive and poorly designed.”
But many of the recitations of the Mueller report that followed came at Lewandowski’s insistence. Questioned by the committee’s chairman, Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., about the June 19, 2017, meeting between Lewandowski and Trump, Lewandowski said he needed “the exact language of the report” to answer if the meeting had simply taken place.
“I don’t think I need to do that,” Nadler retorted.
Lewandowski insisted. “Congressman, I’d like you to refresh my memory,” he said, “by providing a copy of the report so I can follow along.” That led to a search for a printed copy of the report, which Rep. Madeleine Dean, D-Pa., produced. By then, however, Nadler’s five-minute questioning time was up, and Collins forced the committee to take a vote on whether Nadler was allowed to exceed that limit.
All this appeared to delight President Trump, who was said to be watching the hearing aboard Air Force One. He later tweeted that Lewandowski had given a “beautiful” opening statement.
Perhaps the preeminent Trump loyalist in Washington, Lewandowski seemed to immensely enjoy the chaos he was causing. He had an eager supporting cast in the committee’s Republicans. One of those Republicans, Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, had given Lewandowski a hug before the hearing began, in what proved a potent sign of what was to come.
Collins, for example, charged that the Democrats’ “overbroad subpoenas” made it difficult to focus the hearings. “We could have talked today about your favorite football team,” Collins mused.
Lewandowski, who is considering running for the U.S. Senate from New Hampshire and who advertised a new website to aid in that bid during the hearing’s first recess, did not miss a beat: “Patriots,” he said, referencing the New England team.
“Patriots — so you’re pretty happy right now?” Collins went on.
“Tom’s a winner,” Lewandowski deadpanned, referencing Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
Exchanges like that assured that the question of obstruction of justice — which is critical for Democrats wishing to impeach the president — would receive short shrift on Tuesday afternoon. Democrats seemed acutely aware of that fact. “This is a House Judiciary, not a house party,” Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, chided Lewandowski later.
Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., did manage to substantively engage Lewandowski about the Oval Office meeting with Trump. Describing Lewandowski as an “enforcer” willing to break the law, Cohen wondered if Lewandowski found it “strange” to have the president ask him to pressure Sessions into curbing the Mueller investigation.
“I didn’t think the president asked me to do anything illegal,” Lewandoswki said, in one of the few exchanges that seemed to rattle him.
“You didn’t think that was illegal, to obstruct justice?” Cohen thundered.
As the Mueller report makes clear, Lewandowski ultimately did not deliver Trump’s message to Sessions. He did not do so, he told Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., because “I took my kids to the beach. That was more important.”
Democratic ire with the proceedings culminated in Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., suggesting that Lewandowski be held in contempt of Congress.
So it went all afternoon, the Democrats furious and Lewandowski conceding nothing. At one point, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., asked if Trump wanted Lewandowski to “intimidate” Sessions.
“Well,” an unfazed Lewandowski said, “you’d have to ask President Trump that.”
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