Corey Lewandowski, Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign manager, defiantly refused to answer most questions from House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler in a combative hearing that’s the first explicitly tied to the potential impeachment of the president.
Lewandowski said he willingly participated in the investigation by former Special Counsel Robert Mueller, but he threw up a blizzard of obstacles when asked to recount specifics of Mueller’s interviews with him that bolstered the case that Trump obstructed justice.
“As for actual ‘collusion,’ or ‘conspiracy,’ there was none. What there has been however, is harassment of the president from the day he won the election,” Lewandowski said at the hearing Tuesday. “It is now clear the investigation was populated by many Trump haters who had their own agenda – to try and take down a duly elected president of the United States.”
At one point, Nadler said he was “very troubled that the White House counsel sitting behind you are preventing you from answering these very basic questions.”
But Lewandowski’s performance won immediate plaudits from the president, who tweeted from Air Force One, “Such a beautiful Opening Statement by Corey Lewandowski! Thank you Corey!”
White House lawyers moved on the eve of the hearing to limit how far lawmakers can go in the four hours of questioning they plan, much of it centering on Trump’s alleged efforts to obstruct Special Counsel Mueller’s Russia probe.
The White House counsel’s office notified the committee late Monday that Lewandowski is forbidden from discussing confidential conversations he had with Trump, aside from what was already made public in Mueller’s report. The assertion of executive privilege is unusual because Lewandowski never worked in the executive branch.
“This is a cover-up plain and simple. If it were to prevail -- especially while the Judiciary Committee is considering whether to recommend articles of impeachment -- it would upend the separation of powers as envisioned by our founders,” Nadler said in his opening statement at the hearing.
“The president would have us believe that he can willfully engage in criminal activity and prevent witnesses from testifying before Congress -- even if they did not actually work for him or his administration,” the New York Democrat said.
Refusing to Answer
From the start, Lewandowski refused to answer many of the questions from Nadler and other Democrats, including whether he even recalled meeting with Trump in the Oval Office in 2017, as detailed in Mueller’s report. He demanded to see a copy of Mueller’s report and then the page number Nadler was citing -- and then the specific line on that page.
“I am respective of the White House directive,” he said.
A Republican motion to adjourn the hearing early on was defeated. Representative Doug Collins of Georgia, the committee’s top Republican, said the session was solely about “public hearings, lots of flash bulbs and embarrassing this president.”
For Lewandowski, who’s weighing a 2020 bid for a Senate seat from New Hampshire, the televised appearance under subpoena is an opportunity to blast Democrats for conducting what Trump and his supporters call a “witch hunt” against the president.
In a tweet Tuesday morning, the former campaign manager encouraged people to “tune in.”
The hearing revisited themes that frustrated Democrats and infuriated Trump for much of his first term, especially Mueller’s investigation and the White House’s almost blanket refusal to cooperate with House committees. Democrats continue to say they are building a case for possibly impeaching Trump, even as next year’s presidential election approaches.
Lewandowski has already testified twice behind closed doors to the House Intelligence Committee, and once before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Much of that testimony has been made public.
Obstruction of Justice
Mueller’s final report cited Lewandowksi in setting out several instances of potential obstruction of justice, including Trump’s request for him to relay a message to then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to call Mueller’s probe “very unfair.”
Lewandowski confirmed at the hearing that Trump made that request.
“I believe he asked me to deliver a message for Jeff to consider delivering himself,” Lewandowski said under questioning by Democratic Representative Hank Johnson of Georgia.
Denying a suggestion that he “chickened out” from carrying out Trump’s instruction, Lewandowski said he went on vacation and intended to discuss the matter later in a “relaxed atmosphere” over a meal with Sessions, “an old friend.” He said Sessions never responded to that invitation.
Mueller also said Trump asked Lewandowski to tell Sessions to announce that he was limiting Mueller’s probe to “investigating election meddling for future elections.”
Mueller explicitly said he couldn’t absolve Trump of obstructing justice, a declaration that some Democrats saw as an invitation to pick up the investigation where the special counsel’s team left off.
The hearing is the first under modified rules adopted last week by committee Democrats. Nadler framed those changes as laying the ground rules for the panel’s ongoing “impeachment investigation” of Trump, a probe he has said could lead to impeachment articles being recommended to the entire House.
Two other former Trump aides who did work in the White House -- former Deputy Chief of Staff Rick Dearborn and former Staff Secretary Rob Porter -- were also subpoenaed to testify at Tuesday’s hearing.
But they didn’t attend after White House Counsel Pat Cipollone notified the Judiciary Committee that they have “constitutional immunity” from compelled congressional testimony “in order to protect the prerogatives of the Office of President.”
The White House previously asserted broad executive privilege to bar testimony from current and former administration officials. Mostly notable is former White House counsel Don McGahn’s testimony, a stance Nadler is currently challenging in court. An eventual ruling in that dispute could apply to other witnesses.
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