Democrats are pressuring House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) to hold Corey Lewandowski in contempt of Congress after the former Trump campaign manager stonewalled lawmakers during his testimony earlier in the week.
“He operated in contempt of Congress, and yes, I believe he should be” held in contempt. “And I’ve expressed that to the chair,” Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Pa.), a member of the Judiciary panel, told The Hill on Thursday.
“The only purpose to do it is to have teeth in it and to send a message to Mr. Lewandowski that he has to come forth, tell the truth and live up to his obligations under the subpoena,” she added. “His performance was an absurdity.”
Both Nadler and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have expressed interest in holding Lewandowski in contempt, with Pelosi telling members on Thursday that Democrats should have acted “right then and there” at Tuesday’s Judiciary hearing when Lewandowski refused to cooperate with Democrats.
But Pelosi also seemed to defer any decisions to Nadler.
“I trust the committee and the path that they are on,” she said Thursday.
Anticipating an uncooperative witness, some Judiciary Democrats initially consulted the House general counsel about a contempt vote prior to Lewandowski’s testimony, sources familiar with the discussions say. But the counsel recommended against moving to hold him in contempt.
Lewandowski’s pugnacious behavior and refusal to answer questions has triggered a new wave of Democrats to voice support for holding him in contempt.
While the former Trump campaign aide was ordered by the White House not to go beyond the four corners of the Mueller report, he took it a step further by refusing to answer questions about his private conversations with Trump or claiming he did not remember them.
He also challenged Democrats during the hearing, including accusing Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (Texas) of going on a rant and arguing that “Trump haters” were seeking to take down the president.
Democratic Judiciary members are so frustrated by Lewandowski’s performance that they are urging Nadler to hold a closed-door meeting either Thursday or Friday about what action to take against him, committee members said.
“There is a lot of agitating,” one Judiciary member said.
Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), a senior committee member, said Nadler and other panel leaders had anticipated the stonewalling, with Lewandowski dropping hints in the days leading up to the hearing. Now Johnson is among those supporting a contempt vote, to prevent Lewandowski’s recalcitrance from becoming the norm.
“Many members are in accord with the Speaker about wanting to protect the integrity of our process and send a message to future witnesses that their contemptuous conduct can meet the same fate as Lewandowski — should we hold him in contempt,” Johnson said.
“I suppose some might say that to do that would be distractive,” Johnson said of would-be Democratic critics. “But the greater issue is the integrity of our process, and the fact that we can’t allow it to be trashed like Lewandowski trashed it — all the way from his opening statement to his exit from the committee room.”
If Democrats initiate the contempt process, Johnson said, it would likely be soon.
Democrats argue that if they don’t take that step, other witnesses will copy Lewandowski’s playbook in dodging questions and stalling during the hearing.
Some Democrats also say it would look bad if they do not push back against the White House claims of privilege over the testimony of someone who has never worked in the administration. Nadler and other Democrats reject those immunity claims.
Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), another Judiciary member and former 2020 presidential candidate, is among those pressing for contempt.
“We’re engaging with the chairman about that,” he said Thursday, without specifying a timeline.
After members finished questioning Lewandowski on Tuesday, Nadler said he was considering holding Lewandowski in contempt, which would require a resolution to be voted on in Judiciary before a floor vote.
“Mr. Lewandowski, your behavior in this hearing room has been completely unacceptable. It is part of a pattern of a White House desperate for the American people not to hear the truth,” Nadler said at the hearing. “I’ve been asked several times today whether the committee will hold you in contempt. It is certainly under consideration.”
Democrats sought to question the longtime Trump ally on his role in a key episode of obstruction by Trump that former special counsel Robert Mueller examined, in which the president asked Lewandowski to pass along a message to then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions in 2017 to reverse his recusal and set limits on the Russia probe.
But for the most part, Lewandowski’s combative squabbles with Democrats and refusal to answer questions overshadowed the role he played.
Still, Democrats say they were able to prove through staff questioning that Lewandowski is a liar who has repeatedly misled the public about his involvement with the president.
Democrats have voted to hold top Trump officials in contempt before. In July, the House voted on criminal contempt charges against Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross for refusing to respond to Democratic subpoenas.
But the contempt votes did not lead to any serious consequences for Barr and Ross since the Justice Department, led by Barr, opted not to prosecute Trump’s Cabinet members.
If Democrats pursued contempt against Lewandowski, it’s unclear whether they would opt for the same criminal variety they applied to Barr and Ross. Johnson, for one, suggested Democrats may instead push for inherent contempt — a rarely used device authorizing both the House and Senate to “detain and imprison” an individual who refuses to comply with congressional demands, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Such an approach has not been used for nearly a century — employing the House sergeant-at-arms to go after Trump officials would be a highly unusual move — but some Democrats say the degree of stonewalling demands an aggressive response.
“We should be using every tool, and that includes fines,” Assistant Speaker Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) told The Hill.
Other Democrats said that charging Lewandowski with contempt will send a strong message to other Trump aides and associates.
Lewandowski “went in without any intent to answer any questions. It was somewhere between an audition for a political office and trying to get an extra-big Christmas card from Donald Trump,” Progressive Caucus Co-Chairman Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) told The Hill.
“At that point, we should have put him in a place we needed to,” he said. “That isn’t what a witness is supposed to do.”
There’s something interesting here. In court documents, Cohen said he worked with the campaign to keep two women who alleged Trump affairs quiet. But those documents do not say this was at the direction of the president. That charge instead came verbally from Cohen in open court Tuesday. The Associated Press wrote that Cohen told the judge that some questionable payments were “in coordination and at the direction of a candidate for federal office.” This leads us to ask more questions, including: Why didn’t prosecutors put this accusation in writing?
Cohen may not have been doing any legal work for Trump after he became president. And that could affect attorney-client privilege. Digest this rare sentence, near the top of the document, “In or about January 2017, Cohen … began holding himself out as ‘personal attorney’ to Individual-1, who at that point had become the President of the United States.”
Set aside the highly unusual attempt at making the president of the United States anonymous.
Here, prosecutors are careful to say that Cohen merely was claiming to be an attorney for Trump, as opposed to actually doing legal work. This tells us there may be a battle over whether the president could invoke attorney-client privilege with Cohen.
The White House counsel, Donald F. McGahn II, has cooperated extensively in the special counsel investigation, sharing detailed accounts about the episodes at the heart of the inquiry into whether President Trump obstructed justice, including some that investigators would not have learned of otherwise, according to a dozen current and former White House officials and others briefed on the matter.1
In at least three voluntary interviews with investigators that totaled 30 hours over the past nine months, Mr. McGahn described the president’s fury toward the Russia investigation and the ways in which he urged Mr. McGahn to respond to it
.. It is not clear that Mr. Trump appreciates the extent to which Mr. McGahn has cooperated with the special counsel. The president wrongly believed that Mr. McGahn would act as a personal lawyer would for clients and solely defend his interests to investigators
.. Mr. McGahn cautioned to investigators that he never saw Mr. Trump go beyond his legal authorities, though the limits of executive power are murky.
.. the two rarely speak one on one — the White House chief of staff, John F. Kelly, and other advisers are usually present for their meetings — and Mr. Trump has questioned Mr. McGahn’s loyalty.
.. Mr. McGahn that he has called the president “King Kong” behind his back, to connote his volcanic anger, people close to Mr. McGahn said.
.. Mr. Burck said that Mr. McGahn had been obliged to cooperate with the special counsel. “President Trump, through counsel, declined to assert any privilege over Mr. McGahn’s testimony
.. He wanted to take on Mr. Mueller directly, attacking his credibility and impeding investigators. But two of his newly hired lawyers, John M. Dowd and Ty Cobb, have said they took Mr. Trump at his word that he did nothing wrong and sold him on an open-book strategy.
.. As White House counsel, not a personal lawyer, he viewed his role as protector of the presidency, not of Mr. Trump. Allowing a special counsel to root around the West Wing could set a precedent harmful to future administrations.
.. Mr. Trump blamed him for a number of fraught moments in his first months in office, including the chaotic, failed early attempts at a ban on travelers from some majority-Muslim countries and, in particular, the existence of Mr. Mueller’s investigation.
.. Mr. McGahn’s decision to cooperate with the special counsel grew out of Mr. Dowd’s and Mr. Cobb’s game plan, now seen as misguided by some close to the president.
.. Last fall, Mr. Mueller’s office asked to interview Mr. McGahn. To the surprise of the White House Counsel’s Office, Mr. Trump and his lawyers signaled that they had no objection, without knowing the extent of what Mr. McGahn was going to tell investigators.
Mr. McGahn was stunned
.. Mr. Burck has explained to others that he told White House advisers that they did not appreciate the president’s legal exposure and that it was “insane” that Mr. Trump did not fight a McGahn interview in court.
.. the White House has to understand that a client like Mr. Trump probably made politically damaging statements to Mr. McGahn as he weighed whether to intervene in the Russia investigation.
.. Mr. McGahn and his lawyer grew suspicious. They began telling associates that they had concluded that the president had decided to let Mr. McGahn take the fall for decisions that could be construed as obstruction of justice, like the Comey firing, by telling the special counsel that he was only following shoddy legal advice from Mr. McGahn.
.. McGahn told people he was determined to avoid the fate of the White House counsel for President Richard M. Nixon, John W. Dean, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to obstruct justice in the Watergate scandal.
Mr. McGahn decided to fully cooperate with Mr. Mueller. It was, he believed, the only choice he had to protect himself.
.. “This sure has echoes of Richard Nixon’s White House counsel, John Dean, who in 1973 feared that Nixon was setting him up as a fall guy for Watergate and secretly gave investigators crucial help while still in his job,” said the historian Michael Beschloss.
.. By exerting attorney-client privilege, which allows the president to legally withhold information, they would have gained the right to learn what Mr. McGahn planned to tell investigators and what he might reveal that could damage the president. But the president’s lawyers never went through that process, although they told people that they believed they still had the ability to stop Mr. Mueller from handing over to Congress the accounts of witnesses like Mr. McGahn and others.
.. Mr. Burck and Mr. McGahn met the special counsel team in November for the first time and shared all that Mr. McGahn knew.
.. Mr. McGahn gave to Mr. Mueller’s investigators, the people said,
- a sense of the president’s mind-set in the days leading to the firing of Mr. Comey;
- how the White House handled the firing of the former national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn; and
- how Mr. Trump repeatedly berated Mr. Sessions, tried to get him to assert control over the investigation and threatened to fire him.
.. it became apparent that Mr. McGahn and Mr. Burck had overestimated the amount of thought that they believed the president put into his legal strategy