Ex-Trump campaign chief clashes with House panel
Published 2:33 PM EDT Sep 17, 2019
WASHINGTON – House Democrats resumed Tuesday what they call an impeachment investigation of President Donald Trump, summoning his former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, to testify at a public hearing.
The House Judiciary Committee subpoenaed Lewandowski to describe what special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation concluded were attempts to thwart the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Investigators said Trump asked Lewandowski to pass on an order to limit the scope of the Russia investigation to prevent meddling in elections, but he never followed through.
The combative campaign operative, who remains friendly with Trump, instantly proved an uncooperative witness for Democrats trying to cast a spotlight on Trump’s conduct during the investigation. He quarreled with Nadler and refused to answer a succession of questions about his interactions with Trump. Lewandowski signaled as much before the hearing, writing on Twitter that he was “excited about the opportunity to remind the American people today there was no collusion no obstruction.”
Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., said White House limits on Lewandowski’s testimony – and blocking testimony from two former aides – were legally unjustified. Nadler said the committee would explore apparent obstruction of justice by Trump in seeking to limit the Russia inquiry.
“This is a cover-up plain and simple,” Nadler said. “We will not be daunted by the cover-up.”
Lewandowski said in remarks prepared for the hearing that it was “very unfair” that committee Democrats unilaterally changed the rules a week ago to make the hearing part of an impeachment proceeding. “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’s statement said.
Trump tweeted praise for Lewandowski’s “beautiful Opening Statement.”
The hearing opened with feisty exchanges. Lewandowski stalled at Nadler’s first questions, saying he hadn’t brought a copy of the Mueller report to the hearing, to refresh his memory. Republicans accused Nadler of violating House rules by taking more than his allotted five minutes, but the committee voted 19-13 to allow Nadler to continue. The top Republican, Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, moved to adjourn the hearing but was defeated on a 19-12 vote.
When questioning resumed, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, and Lewandowski spoke over each other repeatedly as she asked whether the president turned to him after others such as McGahn refused to hinder Mueller’s inquiry.
“He calls you in to do his dirty work,” Jackson Lee said.
But Lewandowski, flanked by White House lawyers, declined to speak about his conversations with Trump or even say how many times he had spoken with the president in office.
“I will not disclose any conversation I’ve had with the president,” Lewandowski said.
Lewandowski was introduced as a sworn law enforcement officer in New Hampshire. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., asked whether it concerned him that Trump asked him to do something illegal.
“I didn’t think the president asked me to do anything illegal,” Lewandowski said.
Two other people the House had summoned to testify, former White House aides Rick Dearborn and Rob Porter, were instructed by the White House not to show up at the hearing.
Porter’s lawyer, Brant Bishop, told the committee in a letter Monday that White House counsel Pat Cipollone had directed Porter not to appear because of a longstanding Justice Department conclusion that senior advisers can’t be compelled to testify. Porter cooperated with Mueller’s investigation, sitting for 20 hours of interviews and providing documents, Bishop said.
Cipollone also told the committee in a letter Monday that the White House directed Lewandowski not to speak about any communications with Trump beyond what is already in Mueller’s report, citing “long-settled principles protecting Executive Branch confidentiality interests.” Cipollone argued that the protections extended to people like Lewandowski, who spoke to the president but did not work for the government.
Nadler sent a letter Tuesday to Cipollone saying such restrictions would “eviscerate this Committee’s oversight powers.” He called claims of “’absolute immunity’ as entirely without merit.” Nadler said no court decision entitled the president to confidentiality for communications with private political operatives such as Lewandowski.
“Together, these letters reflect a brazen effort by the Department of Justice and the White House to block all meaningful inquiry by this Committee into the President’s possible violation of federal criminal law and other relevant misconduct,” Nadler said.
Former communications director Hope Hicks earlier refused to answer dozens of questions about her service in the administration and former White House counsel Don McGahn defied a subpoena for his testimony and documents. Trump has vowed to fight all subpoenas he contends represent Democratic harassment of his administration.
The Judiciary Committee asked a federal court to enforce its subpoena to force McGahn to testify. Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., dismissed claims of absolute immunity and said if the House wins the McGahn case, it could break the logjam of White House resistance.
“This is a shocking and dangerous assertion of executive privilege and absolute immunity,” Nadler said Monday in a statement. “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. If he were to prevail in this cover-up while the Judiciary Committee is considering whether to recommend articles of impeachment, he would upend the separation of powers as envisioned by our founders.”
The hearing is the latest developing as House Democrats investigate Trump and his administration, to decide whether to recommend articles of impeachment against the president for possible obstruction of justice, abuse of power or unconstitutionally profiting from his namesake business while in office. The Judiciary Committee voted Sept. 10 to set rules for the investigation, such as allowing staffers to question witnesses.
Neither the committee nor the full House has adopted articles of impeachment accusing the president of wrongdoing, but Democrats say they are investigating to build a case. But Republican lawmakers have criticized the inquiry as “impeachment in drag,” in the phrase of Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, for being all dressed up with nowhere to go. Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, called the effort a “faux impeachment” and a “charade” during a committee meeting to set rules for the inquiry. “I double-dog dare you to do it,” Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., said of voting on articles of impeachment.
According to Mueller’s final report, Trump met one-on-one in the Oval Office in June 2017 with Lewandowski, a trusted adviser outside the government, and dictated a message to deliver to Sessions. Sessions had recused himself from the Russia investigation because he worked for Trump’s campaign. But the president said he wanted his attorney general to declare that the investigation was “very unfair,” that Trump had done nothing wrong and that Mueller should “move forward with investigating election meddling for future elections.”
The next month, Trump asked Lewandowski about the status of his message for Sessions to limit the investigation, according to the Mueller report. Lewandowski told the president that the message would be delivered soon. Hours after that meeting, Trump criticized Sessions in an interview with the New York Times, and then issued a series of tweets making it clear that Sessions’ job was in jeopardy.
Lewandowski did not want to deliver Trump’s message personally, so he asked Dearborn to deliver it to Sessions, according to the Mueller report. Dearborn, former deputy chief of staff for policy, was uncomfortable with the task and did not follow through, the report said.
More about clashes between Congress and President Donald Trump:
House panel subpoenas Corey Lewandowski, President Donald Trump’s former campaign manager
House panel OKs 12 subpoenas for Trump associates, including Kushner, National Enquirer executives
What we learned from Robert Mueller: Seven hours, zero bombshells and everyone declares victory