WASHINGTON — Corey Lewandowski’s congressional testimony on Tuesday may have felt a bit circus-like at times for House Democrats, but it was a disaster for President Donald Trump.
The first hearing of the Democratic-led House Judiciary Committee’s effort to develop articles of impeachment against Trump was a contentious affair in which Lewandowski, Trump’s 2016 campaign manager and the lone witness, said Democrats “hate this president more than they love their country.”
But no one — not Lewandowski nor committee Republicans — seriously disputed the central theme of the day: that Trump had gone to extreme lengths in circumventing the entirety of the federal government to get Lewandowski to instruct then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to publicly announce that the president had done nothing wrong and limit the scope of special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe in 2017.
Ultimately, Lewandowski put flesh on the bones that Mueller gave the committee in his report.
And as NBC’s Geoff Bennett reports, Democrats believe Trump’s efforts to exercise control over Lewandowski’s testimony — through its assertion of executive privilege and the use of White House lawyers to monitor his remarks — may open a new pathway to an impeachable obstruction of justice offense. They liken Trump’s moves to actions that formed the basis of the third article of impeachment the Judiciary Committee drafted against President Richard Nixon, who ultimately resigned before the full House could vote on whether to impeach him.
Either way, Lewandowski’s appearance delivered what the Democrats wanted — and the process wasn’t pretty for Trump.
Over the course of several hours, Lewandowski slowly — and perhaps unwittingly — added movie-like color, and a few new morsels, to Mueller’s dry narrative of Trump’s decision to lean on a trusted confidant to carry out a special mission that all the president’s men and women had refused to execute for fear of breaking the law.
The cloak-and-dagger details included Lewandowski taking down careful notes in the Oval Office, sticking them in a safe at home, and trying once to schedule a meeting with Sessions outside the Justice Department — and its visitor logs — only to be frustrated by Sessions’ canceling.
Trump asked Lewandowski to do that after then-White House counsel Don McGahn declined to fire Mueller at Trump’s direction, according to Mueller’s report.
Barry Berke, a consultant serving as counsel for committee Democrats, later asked Lewandowski about passages in Lewandowski’s book “Let Trump be Trump: The Inside Story of His Rise to the Presidency” that detail White House deliberations about bringing in Lewandowski to “run the Russia investigation” just weeks earlier.
Lewandowski said the job was then-White House chief of staff’s Reince Priebus’s idea, not Trump’s, and that “to the best of my knowledge,” Trump was not intentionally dangling the possibility of a high-ranking West Wing post in front of Lewandowski while asking him to gut the special counsel probe.
Asked by Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., whether he was picked for the Sessions’ assignment because Trump thought “you would play whatever role he wanted because it was illegal,” Lewandowski curiously chose not to criticize the premise.
“That would be a question for the president, congressman,” Lewandowski replied. He had said moments earlier that he believed he was never asked to do anything illegal but also repeatedly asserted that he is not a lawyer.
What Democrats were trying to show was that Lewandowski was an essential player in an attempt by Trump to obstruct justice by sabotaging the Mueller probe. Though Lewandowski denied it, they contended the longtime political operative’s sense of self-preservation — his understanding that he was putting himself at legal risk — stopped him from carrying out orders from Trump.
“The president never asked me to do anything illegal, and he never asked me to keep anything secret,” Lewandowski said.
At a second White House conclave a month later, Lewandowski told the president that he would tell Sessions what to do.
If Sessions wouldn’t meet with him, Trump said, Lewandowski should tell Sessions he would be fired.
“I took that as a joke,” Lewandowski testified.
But rather than meeting with Sessions or threatening that he would be fired, Lewandowski passed that job off to Rick Dearborn, a White House official. Dearborn sat on it.
Democrats said their behavior was evidence that they knew the president was acting improperly.
“Rick Dearborn knew delivering the message was wrong. You knew it was wrong,” Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I.,” said as he questioned Lewandowski. “That’s why even after being asked to deliver it and saying you would handle it soon, you passed it off to him and you never followed up. … I think the president asking a private citizen to try to scare his attorney general into ending the investigation into the president’s conduct is obstruction of justice. Plain and simple.”
At times, the hearing was a partisan food fight, with Democrats accusing Lewandowski of using his time to prep a Senate run in New Hampshire. Lewandowski and Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., engaged in several minutes of third-grade quarreling over who would read a quotation from a video screen, and Republicans called for several dilatory roll-call votes over various injustices — real or perceived.
Democrats on the committee repeatedly asked Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., whether he would hold Lewandowski in contempt of the committee, and Nadler scolded him for repeatedly declining to answer questions by citing a controversial assertion of executive privilege by the White House. Lewandowski has never worked for Trump in the administration, and Democrats contend that his conversations with Trump cannot legally be protected from testimony by an executive privilege.
When the hearing was turned over to hired lawyers, Lewandowski acknowledged that he sometimes misrepresents facts when he’s not under oath.
Berke played a clip of Lewandowski telling MSNBC’s Ari Melber that the president hadn’t asked him to engage with Sessions on the Russia probe.
“I have no obligation to be honest with the media,” Lewandowski said, adding that the media are “just as dishonest” as anyone else.
In the end, Trump, who had praised Lewandowski on Twitter earlier in the day, was left worse for wear. Lewandowski had effectively colored in the outlines Mueller had left of one set of Trump’s efforts to interfere in the Russia probe.
The only question — one for Congress to decide after it has collected more testimony — is whether that picture looks like criminal obstruction of justice by the president.