In his opening statement, Lewandowski waxed over the “ride down the golden escalator” that began the Trump campaign, which Lewandowski called “the greatest political movement in our nation’s history.” He then disparaged all congressional investigations as illegitimate attempts by “Trump haters” to “take down a duly elected president.”
Those canned political talking points were as substantive as Lewandowski got.
With major assists from the White House counsel and Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee, Lewandowski turned the hearing into a procedural farce designed to attack the House majority and smother any effort to gain actual information about the administration’s misconduct.
Lewandowski has plenty of information to supply. As documented in former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report, Trump met with Lewandowski in the Oval Office in the summer of 2017 and dictated a message for Lewandowski to take to then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions (who was recused from the Mueller probe) directing Sessions to limit the probe to future conduct.
As Mueller made clear, Trump’s order to Lewandowski (which Lewandowski never delivered) would “qualify as an obstructive act if it would naturally obstruct the investigation.” And Trump’s choice to use Lewandowski, rather than rely on official channels, “provide[d] additional evidence of [Trump’s] intent.”
In this and three other episodes, Mueller, who famously declined to make a bottom-line legal finding because of the executive-branch policy against indicting a sitting president, came within an eyelash of accusing the president of obstruction.
Lewandowski, who is named more than 100 times in the Mueller report, was therefore one of the handful of witnesses who the Judiciary Committee was most keen to question, notwithstanding his evident hostility toward the committee’s work. But the examination was sharply curtailed Monday evening when White House counsel Pat A. Cipollone asserted that Lewandowski’s conversations with the president, to the extent not already revealed by Mueller, were “protected from disclosure by long-settled principles protecting Executive Branch confidentiality interests.”
The claim is, simply, make-believe. Were the White House counsel to advance it to a court, it would be treated with scorn.
That’s because Lewandowski never even worked in the White House or the executive branch. None of the legal doctrines that protect the confidentiality of executive-branch communications have ever been held to cover communications with people outside of the executive branch.
Lewandowski waved the bogus Cipollone pass repeatedly and took it to even more ridiculous lengths by refusing, for the most part, to testify about events detailed in the Mueller report. Rather, he limited his few evidentiary responses to robotic acknowledgments about what was and was not in the report, which he testified he had never read.
He largely kept his cool and limited his obvious contempt with the majority to clenched-jaw glares and snide asides. (“Unlike you, Congressman, I don’t live in town.”) When committee counsel Barry Berke took over the questioning at the end, he did knock Lewandowski off balance, and sharply undercut Lewandowski’s testimony that he didn’t think Trump had instructed him to do anything wrong. The half-hour gave us a glimpse of how the past several months could have been very different had professional counsel been doing the questioning, as in Watergate and Iran-Contra.
For the most part, however, Lewandowski didn’t need to get too combative, because the House Republicans had their own plan to try to delegitimize the entire hearing.
First, they used most of their time to deliver recycled broadsides about the Democrats’ oversight efforts (witch hunt, no collusion, deep-state interference, Steele dossier and the like), to which Lewandowski was happy to assent. To that they added a new tactic of pointy-headed parliamentary maneuvering — points of order, parliamentary procedure, calls for roll-call votes with foregone conclusions — with the apparent goal of making the whole enterprise seem absurd. They looked ridiculous in the process, of course, but they seemingly were willing to absorb that cost to try to turn voters against the oversight process in general.
Lewandowski has been largely out of the public eye since the campaign. But his return to the public stage will be lasting, if he and the president have their way. Trump last month called Lewandowski “a fantastic guy” who would be a “great senator.” Remarkably, Lewandowski used a recess in his testimony to announce a website to support a potential Senate run in New Hampshire. He added a plug for his candidacy in testimony, which left little doubt that he is running.
When Trump rode down the golden escalator in June 2015, he was a joke; as president, he has seemed the ultimate one-off, bizarre and singular. But Lewandowski presents the concrete possibility of Trump’s influence extending past his tenure, into a cadre of proudly “Trumpian” political figures. Pugnacious, contemptuous, indifferent to law or fact, Lewandowski is a perfect model for a sustained Trumpian legacy in U.S. political life.