It was an approach right up Lewandowski’s alley.
On Tuesday, Lewandowski completed his perhaps predictable journey from anonymous-sidekick-to-a-novelty-candidate guy to the political operative providing sworn congressional testimony about his former boss. He relished the moment: the cameras, the attention, the chance to yet again demonstrate his fealty to Trump and, of course, to make life as painful as possible for his political opponents. Lewandowski is the physical embodiment of every snarky Facebook reply about liberal losers, and he carries it with pride. He’s clever enough to pull it off, usually.
During his testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, though, he revealed something else, something that has long been an undercurrent to Trump's politics. Something that was apparent but downplayed at the outset of his campaign, back when Lewandowski was one of a half-dozen staffers and the campaign was seen as an impossibility hampered by Trump's inability to play politics. As Lewandowski knew then, Trump was just playing a different game.
At one point, Lewandowski was questioned by committee counsel Barry Berke. Berke asked Lewandowski whether he’d ever misrepresented his work for Trump, showing a clip from MSNBC to make his point.
“Do you hear that, sir? That was you saying on MSNBC, you don’t ever remember the president ever asking you to get involved with Jeff Sessions or the Department of Justice in any way, shape or form,” Berke said. “That wasn’t true, was it, sir?"
Indeed it wasn't. To former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III's team, Lewandowski had admitted that Trump had asked him to get then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to rescind his recusal on the Russia investigation.
But Lewandowski, never one to accede to an opponent, didn't immediately agree with Berke's question.
“I heard that,” he replied.
“And that was not true, was it?” Berke asked.
“I have no obligation to be honest with the media,” Lewandowski said, “because they're just as dishonest as anybody else."
The pair went back and forth for a bit. Was Lewandowski being a truth-teller in the interview, Berke eventually asked.
“I’m a truth-teller every time I stand before Congress or a committee of jurisdiction and raise my hand and swear to God under oath,” Lewandowski said.
“My question, sir,” Berke pressed, “is when you said the president never asked you to get involved with Mr. Sessions."
“I have no obligation to have a candid conversation with the media whatsoever, just like they have no obligation to cover me honestly,” Lewandowski replied. “And they do it inaccurately all the time."
“So you're admitting that on national television you were lying there?” Berke said.
“What I'm saying is they have been inaccurate on many occasions,” Lewandowski responded, “and perhaps I was inaccurate that time."
This exchange is the entire point of the Trump-Lewandowski insistence on labeling the media as “fake news.” It is not enough for Lewandowski to reject the objectivity of the news media, to resist its effort to hold him and the president to account. Instead, that resistance itself is part of the fight, something to praise as part of the sprawling Trumpian political culture war. Dishonesty isn’t a last resort; instead, it’s presented as a natural response to the oppression of those who would point out lies.
Lewandowski is rarely able to contain his satisfaction at scoring political points, and his physical response to the Berke exchange makes clear that he viewed his rejoinder as incisive. Laying before him was another soldier from the noxious land of accuracy, slain by his trademark tactic of flanking opponents from a nihilist world where anything goes.
This all puts far too glamorous a gloss on what Lewandowski does. His first notable instance of lying directly to the press (and the world) was when he grabbed the arm of a Breitbart reporter at a Trump event, bruising her. He and Trump denied, denied, denied, embracing articles eager to champion the then-candidate (including from her employer) by questioning her account. Then video emerged of Lewandowski doing exactly what he was accused of, and he and Trump shrugged and carried on. This wasn’t an elegant duel between Lewandowski and the press; it was a thuggish attempt to avoid accountability for assaulting a reporter. Neither his actions or his dishonesty affected his standing in Trumpworld. His lying worked.
It worked because he didn't face repercussions, sticking with the campaign until Trump was pressured to fire him in mid-2016 as it became obvious that Trump would be the Republican nominee. It works in an ongoing way because Lewandowski's public admission that he lied to the media didn't even result in a media blackout lasting 24 hours. By Wednesday morning, Lewandowski was back on CNN — not under oath, as far as we can tell — talking about whatever he wanted to talk about.
Lewandowski is a newsworthy figure, but interviewing someone who just admitted that they will lie to you is simply ceding the field. The media’s job is to explain to the world what is happening. Asking questions of someone who says they have no qualms about lying to you is an almost-complete abdication of that job.
This calculated “fake news” effort by Trump and Lewandowski takes advantage of an imbalance between the press and politicians. The media has a professional obligation to be accurate; we’ve seen numerous examples of journalists getting stories wrong and losing influence or jobs as a result. The only obligation politicians have is to voters. In the past, lying to the public was something shameful and presumed to incur a political cost as voters rebelled. Trump proved that when there’s no political cost — which, for him, there isn’t — there’s no hindrance on dishonesty. What’s more, Trump can leverage the imbalance to highlight minor mistakes as evidence of media bias while never correcting himself.
Lewandowski’s apparent next step is to seek office himself, running for the Senate from New Hampshire. It remains to be seen whether the cavalier approach to honesty he shares with Trump will be as unimportant to voters there as it has been to Trump’s base nationally.