Trump, who was watching, applauded Lewandowski on Twitter, writing that he gave a “beautiful” opening statement. But Lewandowski’s defiance and disregard for Democrats’ impeachment inquiry also prompted a contempt threat from Democrats.
“Mr. Lewandowski, your behavior in this hearing room has been completely unacceptable,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said. “You have shown the public that the Trump administration will do anything and everything in its power to obstruct the work of the Congress.”
The five-hour-plus hearing did produce confirmation from Lewandowski of one key element in the Mueller report. Under intense questioning from committee counsel, the former campaign manager affirmed that the president personally asked him to persuade then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to limit the special counsel’s investigation.
Lewandowski never delivered the message, the report found — instead passing it off to another Trump official.
He testified Tuesday that he went on “vacation” and merely ran out of time — not because he worried that Trump’s request was illegal. But if Democrats were hoping to elicit more information about the episode to build their impeachment case, Lewandowski dashed those hopes.
He set the tone in his opening statement, mocking Democrats and ridiculing what he called the “fake Russia collusion narrative.”
“We as a nation would be better served if elected officials like you concentrated your efforts to combat the true crises facing our country as opposed to going down rabbit holes like this hearing,” Lewandowski said. “If instead of focusing on petty and personal politics, the committee focused on solving the challenges of this generation, imagine how many people we could help.”
Under questioning, Lewandowski routinely asked for page numbers, feigned ignorance and otherwise dodged questions from Democrats.
“The White House has directed that I not disclose the substance of any discussion with the president or his advisers to protect executive branch confidentiality,” he said repeatedly. “I recognize this is not my privilege, but I am respecting the White House’s decision.”
It was Lewandowski’s attitude that most infuriated panel Democrats, who chided him for being disrespectful and filibustering their hearing. “Mr. Lewandowski, you’re like a fish being cleaned with a spoon; it’s very hard to get an answer out of you,” said Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.). Added a frustrated Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.): “This is the House Judiciary Committee! Not a house party!”
“This is my time,” yelled the usually even-tempered Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) when Lewandowski talked over her. “You are a witness before the Judiciary Committee. Please act like it!”
Throughout the hearing, it was clear that Lewandowski knew Trump was watching. The former campaign aide extolled the president for getting “more votes than any candidate in the history of the Republican Party.”
He also took a swipe at Trump’s 2016 rival, Hillary Clinton, and her handling of emails, and criticized the “Obama-Biden administration” for its inability to stop Russia election interference — dropping the name of the former vice president and 2020 presidential candidate.
“Donald Trump was a private citizen and had no more responsibility than I did to protect the 2016 election,” he said. “That fell to the Obama-Biden administration and they failed. ”
Lewandowski’s appearance marked the first time House Democrats had a key witness in the Mueller investigation testify in public — a move they welcomed even though he was fiercely loyal to Trump. Democrats had argued that even if Lewandowski was combative, he could confirm exactly what he told Mueller’s prosecutors — information they believe undermines the president.
But even getting Lewandowski to confirm what he told Mueller proved tricky. Nadler tried to ask him about a key meeting with Trump detailed in the Mueller report, but Lewandowski wanted to see the specific language before he would answer any questions.
“Do you not have an independent recollection?” Nadler asked, flabbergasted that he couldn’t — or wouldn’t — remember.
Jackson Lee was next and had no better luck. She tried to ask Lewandowski about why Trump went to him and not others in the White House to try to get Sessions to limit the scope of the Mueller investigation. But Lewandowski once again wouldn’t go there.
“I’m respecting the executive branch privileged of confidentiality,” he said, causing Jackson Lee to explode in anger: “You are obviously here to block any truth,” she said. “He called you to do his dirty work for him! ”
Looming large was Lewandowski’s political ambitions. During a break from testimony, he tweeted about a possible bid and mentioned a political action committee backing a candidacy.
“New website just launched to help a potential senate run. Sign up now!” he wrote during a panel break, a reference to his potential challenge to Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.).
Trump last month touted the possibility of a Lewandowski candidacy in New Hampshire, calling his former aide “a fantastic guy” who “would be a great senator.” Lewandowski has said he plans to make a decision about the race next month — and he is likely to benefit from Trump’s backing.
Democrats privately wondered whether Lewandowski’s desire for a Trump endorsement was one of the reasons he was so defiant. At one point, Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) tried to get Lewandowski to merely read the section in the Mueller report about him. He still wouldn’t do it, and poked fun at his failed presidential bid, calling him “President Swalwell.”
That’s when the Democrat from California suggested that Lewandowski was too “ashamed” to read the report out loud. “I’m not ashamed of anything in my life,” Lewandowski shot back. “Did you have a consciousness of guilt and that’s why you can’t read them aloud?” Swalwell asked.
The back-and-forth prompted Nadler to jump in to accuse Lewandowski of obstructing the committee’s work. An angry Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-R.I.) agreed, suggesting the panel should hold Lewandowski in contempt.
Nadler said he’d take that proposal under consideration. Democrats privately discussed that step but decided to keep the focus on Trump, according to officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss private deliberations.
At times the hearing was almost comical. When Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) asked Lewandowski, “Are you the hit man, bag man, the lookout or all of the above?” Lewandowski replied: “I think I’m the good-looking man, actually.”
Lewandowski also scolded Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.) for saying the tooth fairy was not real: “My children are watching, so thank you for that.”
Republicans, meanwhile, used their time to praise the president and sympathize with Lewandowski because Democrats asked him to testify.
“Why do Dems continue this charade?” Trump ally Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) asked. Lewandowski replied: “I think they hate this president more than they love their country.”
Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.