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Lewandowski Testimony Highlights Democrats’ Impeachment Squeeze

September 18, 2019, 1:07 PM UTC

Corey Lewandowski did not testify to offer Democrats answers in what some members are calling an impeachment investigation against President Donald Trump—but his combative appearance before the House Judiciary Committee gave new heft to a key frustration of theirs, that the Trump administration is obstructing them at every turn.  

The former Trump campaign aide dodged Democratic lawmakers’ questions and won the approval of the president, who tweeted that his opening statement was “beautiful.”

House Republicans made numerous parliamentary maneuvers to gum up the proceedings, causing committee Democrats to become visibly angry. Lewandowski used the hearing for self-promotion, tweeting a link to his potential 2020 New Hampshire Senate campaign during a committee recess. However, he did confirm an episode in the Mueller Report where Trump directed the former aide to tell then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to limit the scope of the Russia investigation, and he all but admitted he lied about his conversations with Trump to the media.

WASHINGTON, DC – SEPTEMBER 17: Democratic staff lawyer Barry Burke questions former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski during a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill September 17, 2019 in Washington, DC. The White House has instructed Former White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter and former White House Deputy Chief of Staff Rick Dearborn not to appear in the hearing that focused on “Presidential Obstruction of Justice and Abuse of Power.” (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Alex Wong—Getty Images

Despite the chaos, to some House Democrats, Lewandowski’s testimony had an upside —the Trump administration’s continued stonewalling of their investigations potentially leading to articles of impeachment against the president now had a face, whereas the drama had been only playing out in legal filings and court battles.

“I think that overall it shows that they’re hiding,” Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), a member of the House Judiciary Committee and a supporter of impeaching Trump, told Fortune on September 16 of Lewandowski and the Republicans. “The people see that there’s so much denial, so much obfuscation, and so much obstruction.” 

Another Judiciary Committee member, Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), called his testimony “explosive.”

“The American people both saw the misconduct of the president through the activities that Corey Lewandowski admitted happened and they saw the ongoing obstruction by the president trying to prevent Congress from doing its work,” he told reporters.

Despite the theatrics, the hearing did not change the fact that the Trump administration was still obstructing House Democrats at every turn, and succeeding at it.

House Democrats have not been able to get any current or former Trump administration officials to testify publicly before their investigative committees. And White House lawyers directed Lewandowski not to speak about his conversations with the president beyond what was stated publicly in the Mueller Report.

WASHINGTON, DC – SEPTEMBER 17: Committee ranking member Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA) speaks as Chairman Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) listens during a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill September 17, 2019 in Washington, DC. The White House has instructed Former White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter and former White House Deputy Chief of Staff Rick Dearborn not to appear in the hearing that focused on “Presidential Obstruction of Justice and Abuse of Power.” (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Alex Wong—Getty Images

White House lawyers have directed aides not to testify before the Democratic-controlled House committees. Lewandowski, unlike Rob Porter and Rick Dearborn, two White House aides who were subpoenaed to testify at the same hearing and did not at the direction of the White House under “absolute immunity,” never worked in the Trump administration and only on the campaign.

Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) said Lewandowski’s assertion of privilege was “completely phony,” and acknowledged that White House obstruction was an issue. “It’s becoming a serious problem for us that the White House has ordered absolute defiance and obstruction of our investigations,” he told reporters. “We really have to figure out how to deal with that. The members are frustrated and a lot of people are talking about contempt.”   

Prompted by Democratic members, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) said in the hearing that holding Lewandowski in contempt of Congress was “under consideration,” but did not elaborate.

Nevertheless, House Democrats’ efforts to hold Trump officials in contempt of Congress have also not yet led to them testifying publicly. The House voted to hold Attorney General William Barr and former White House counsel Don McGahn in civil contempt of Congress in June to enforce Judiciary Committee subpoenas. House Democrats then took McGahn to court, but the civil litigation seems unlikely to reach a resolution soon enough for the political calendar.

Representative Jerry Nadler, a Democrat from New York and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, speaks with Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democrat from Texas, during a hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2019. Corey Lewandowski, former campaign manager for U.S. President Donald Trump, promised to “be as sincere in my answers as the committee is in its questions” in a combative opening statement challenging the Committee’s investigation of the president and his associates. (Photographer: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Al Drago—Bloomberg via Getty Images

Still, some House Democrats were looking to the courts for relief. “We’ve got to get court orders,”  said Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.). “Inherent contempt by Congress is limited in terms of its ability to compel the testimony that we need,” he added, referring to Congress’ vestigial power to use its own officials to take a person into custody for not appearing before the legislative body.

Faced with less-than-ideal options to hold Trump officials to account in the legal realm, Democrats were left with using a political strategy of holding hearings that would determine whether to recommend articles of impeachment against the president. Impeachment, however, has divided the Democratic caucus, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has yet to come out for it.  

“We have to lay it out for the American people,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) told reporters of the case against Trump. “And that’s why these hearings are a strategy. They’re a political strategy from the Republicans to cover up. And that cover up may be the most damaging thing they can do at this point.”

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