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.”