Lewandowski refuses to answer questions at first ‘impeachment’ hearing

Lewandowski: Executive privilege letter not my idea
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President Donald Trump’s former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, appearing Tuesday before the House Judiciary Committee in the panel’s first official “impeachment hearing,” refused to answer key questions about potential obstruction by Trump and repeatedly argued with Democrats.

Lewandowski took a combative tone from the start, slamming committee Democrats, criticizing Obama-era intelligence officials, praising Trump’s successful presidential campaign and jabbing at former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He denied collusion with Russia — even though he was never formally accused of that — but avoided commenting on the obstruction issue.

But as the hearing dragged on, Lewandowski occasionally strayed from the stonewalling and confirmed key parts of the Mueller report that touched on Trump’s potential obstruction crimes.

Lewandowski said the report accurately described his private discussions with Trump about pressuring then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to curtail the Russia investigation in 2017. He also confirmed that he wanted to convey Trump’s message to Sessions about blocking the investigation from examining the 2016 race, but he said a family vacation got in the way.

A dramatic partisan split was on full display. Democrats traded barbs with Lewandowski and said he “chickened out” from following Trump’s questionable orders. Republicans hailed Lewandowski’s prowess as manager for Trump’s long-shot presidential bid.

Democrats hoped the open hearing would refocus the public’s attention on former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, which revealed evidence that Trump had obstructed justice but did not determine whether he should be charged. But the hearing descended into partisan bickering about House rules, and Republicans mocked it as “fake impeachment.”

The President, watching aboard Air Force One, cheered on Lewandowski’s combative posture and tweeted, “Such a beautiful Opening Statement by Corey Lewandowski! Thank you Corey!”

The White House on Monday had sent a letter to the committee saying that it was directing Lewandowski not to answer questions about his conversations with Trump, beyond what was in the Mueller report. Lewandowski followed these instructions closely throughout the hearing.

House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, a New York Democrat, accused the White House of being engaged in an “absolute cover-up” by blocking some witnesses from appearing at the public session and trying to restrict Lewandowski’s testimony based on “crony privilege.”

Partisan bickering

Lewandowski was heavily referenced in Mueller’s report, which described how Trump tried to stop the investigation into his campaign and re-focus the probe on preventing future meddling. The report says Trump repeatedly directed Lewandowski in 2017 to deliver this message to Sessions, but Lewandowski ignored Trump and didn’t follow through.

Mueller investigated 10 episodes involving Trump for potential obstruction of justice, and the Lewandowski situation was one of those episodes. In the report, prosecutors analyzed whether each incident checked the three boxes needed to typically bring an obstruction charge.

Some of the incidents did not meet the threshold, and others were a close call. Prosecutors determined Trump’s actions with Lewandowski checked all three boxes for obstruction: It was a distinct “obstructive act” that would hamper the investigation, the action was directly linked to an ongoing criminal probe, and there was “substantial evidence” of Trump’s obstructive intent.

“The President never asked me to do anything illegal,” Lewandowski told the committee regarding that request.

Republicans have spent their time mostly attacking Democrats, calling them the “Party of Impeachment,” in Texas Rep. John Ratcliffe’s words, and asking for hearings on other issues.

Rep. Jim Jordan demanded that the committee hold hearings on the Justice Department’s inspector general report on former FBI Director James Comey’s handling of his memos rather than questioning Lewandowski.

“Of course you haven’t thought about that, too busy trying to impeach the President, too busy slapping subpoenas on Corey Lewandowski,” the Ohio Republican said.

During a brief recess, Lewandowski posted a link on Twitter to a new website that is promoting his potential Senate campaign next year in New Hampshire. One senior Democrat on the panel later called out Lewandowski for seemingly using the televised hearing for campaign purposes.

“Let me remind you, Mr. Lewandowski, that this is not a Republican primary campaign,” Democratic Rep. Hakeem Jeffries said. “You are not on the campaign trail yet. This is the House Judiciary Committee. Act like you know the difference.”

Lewandowski in the Mueller report

Mueller wrote that Trump’s former campaign manager was directed by the President to ask Sessions to limit the Mueller investigation and not to investigate the Trump campaign. Lewandowski tried to set up an in-person meeting with Sessions, but did not do so, according to the special counsel.

A month after making the request to Lewandowski about Sessions, the President followed up with Lewandowski and told him that if Sessions did not meet with him, he would be fired. Lewandowski did not deliver the intended message to Sessions. Instead, he asked former White House aide Rick Dearborn to speak to Sessions, believing he would be a better messenger, the special counsel wrote. Dearborn later told Lewandowski he had handled the situation, but he did not actually follow through.

The committee also subpoenaed Dearborn and former White House aide Rob Porter to appear Tuesday, but they are not expected after the White House told the committee Monday they had immunity from testifying before Congress due to executive privilege.

The committee has objected to this rationale previously, and is currently suing to force former White House counsel Don McGahn to testify after the White House made a similar claim when he was subpoenaed earlier this year.

Lewandowski did not serve in the Trump administration, so he does not have the same immunity. But the White House is claiming the right to assert executive privilege over his conversations with the President in instructing him not to answer those questions. Nadler disputed that the White House can make this claim without invoking privilege.

When Lewandowski appeared behind closed doors before the House Intelligence Committee last year, he did not answer the committee’s questions about topics after he left the campaign in 2016, in a session that led to expletives being shouted across the room.

This story is breaking and will be updated.

CNN’s Manu Raju and Pamela Brown contributed to this report.