Updated at 4:53 p.m. ET
President Trump's former campaign manager jousted with House Democrats on the Judiciary Committee Tuesday in a combative hearing that each side hoped might strengthen its narrative about the legacy of the Russia imbroglio.
Corey Lewandowski became the rare Trump world insider to meet Democrats in Congress eye to eye — and he went on offense over the aftermath of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russia's attack on the 2016 presidential election.
"Interest in the fake Russia collusion narrative has fallen apart," Lewandowski said. "It's now clear the investigation was populated by many Trump haters who had their own agenda."
Then-President Barack Obama's national security leaders, including former CIA Director John Brennan and former FBI Director James Comey, failed to defend the U.S. in 2016 against the Russian interference, Lewandowski alleged.
He also declined to respond to the substance of many questions by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., and other Democrats who asked about the role Lewandowski was described as playing in the Mueller report.
That led to calls for Lewandowski to be held in contempt, which Nadler said he would take "under advisement."
In other cases, Lewandowski did answer — within the rules of engagement he said had been set down by the White House counsel's office, which he said forbade him from talking about conversations with Trump.
Lewandowski said he's never read Mueller's report, took opportunities to mock or snap back at Democrats — at one point, he addressed Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., who bowed out of a brief 2020 campaign earlier this year, as "President Swalwell" — and acknowledged, in at least one case, that things might have gone differently in 2016.
Rep. Lou Correa, D-Calif., asked Lewandowski why he or others, including a deputy, Sam Clovis, hadn't talked with authorities about the contacts they knew were being made with campaign aides by Russians in 2016.
"In hindsight, it's something Mr. Clovis probably should have done," Lewandowski said.
He also used his time in the spotlight on Tuesday, which included a few break-ins on cable news, to tease a prospective congressional campaign in New Hampshire. During a break in the hearing, Lewandowski's account on Twitter posted a message soliciting help for his "potential" Senate run.
Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, D-Pa., cited the allusions as a reason not to take Lewandowski's testimony seriously.
"That says an awful lot about the witness' motivation to appear here today and I've heard enough," she said.
What it's all about
For Democrats, the report and its lingering importance have to do with whether Congress impeaches Trump — ostensibly over the allegations that he obstructed justice in trying to frustrate the Mueller investigation.
Nadler sought to make clear before the fact that Congress is pursuing what he says is impeachment in a meaningful way, including in a recent interview with NPR member station WNYC.
In today's interview, @RepJerryNadler expressed frustration at the misconception that impeachment proceedings aren't underway. The committee is holding impeachment hearings this week, and investigations are active. LISTEN: https://t.co/Yc9APnDAFX— Brian Lehrer Show (@BrianLehrer) September 16, 2019
The Judiciary Committee's minority Republicans, meanwhile, scoff at Democrats' free repetition of "impeachment," which ranking member Doug Collins, R-Ga., and others call a scam.
Nadler is pretending there's an impeachment process underway, Collins says, when in fact the full House hasn't agreed to undertake one — and the Democrats' own leader, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, opposes it.
Collins argues that Democrats are putting on a show to placate their most liberal supporters and create the illusion that impeachment is real. It's a "faux-impeachment charade," he said on Tuesday.
"They don't have the votes," Collins said. "The majority made a promise and they couldn't keep it."
Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz called the hearing a "joke" and complained about how poorly executed a joke it has proved.
"The path the majority has taken us on has rambled from disorganized to just downright dizzying," he said.
The Republicans despaired about ever moving on from the Mueller era in the House when the majority remains controlled by what Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas., described as "the party of impeachment."
"They're going to find something — anything — to keep this impeachment hoax alive," he said.
For Lewandowski and other supporters of Trump, the Mueller legacy is about a cabal of insiders who conspired to frame Trump for conspiring with Russia's interference and the Democrats who colluded to perpetuate those charges.
Mueller's investigation established a number of links between Trump's camp and the Russians in 2016 but not a criminal conspiracy to throw the election.
Mueller's office also documented what some outside it have called obstruction by Trump — but the Justice Department did not seek an indictment in part because of the privilege that Trump enjoys as president protecting him from prosecution.
In the case of Lewandowski, the report describes him playing a central role in a bid by Trump to constrain the scope of Mueller's inquiry.
Trump dictated a speech that he wanted Lewandowski to give to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, one in which Sessions would have said he wanted Mueller to confine his investigation to preventing interference in future elections — not looking into what took place in 2016.
Ultimately Lewandowski tasked someone else, then-deputy White House chief of staff Rick Dearborn, with delivering that message to Sessions. Dearborn balked and never conveyed it to the Justice Department.
Nadler and Democrats wanted Dearborn and another former White House official, Rob Porter, to appear with Lewandowski on Tuesday, but the Trump administration barred them from taking part.
The White House said their testimony was shielded by executive privilege — the doctrine that permits an administration to shield some of its workings from the public.
Lewandowski also said that was the basis for his reticence, even though he never worked for the Trump administration. Lewandowski said he recognized that it wasn't his privilege to invoke but he argued that he had a duty to protect the president's ability to meet and take counsel in confidence.
Nadler called that yet another example of what he said was Trump's attempt to obstruct discovery of facts about his administration.
"This is a shocking and dangerous assertion of executive privilege and absolute immunity," Nadler said. "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."