WASHINGTON — House Democrats opened an aggressive series of impeachment hearings Tuesday with a combative former Trump campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, who called the inquiry into presidential obstruction harassment and a partisan attack.
Even before the hearing began, a defiant Lewandowski took to social media and echoed President Donald Trump in an often used phrase: “No collusion, no obstruction.”
The hearing immediately fell into disarray when Lewandowski stalled with answers, prompting partisan bickering and parliamentary votes, including two by Republicans to adjourn which failed on a party-line votes.
Lewandowski told the panel that he never held conversations with officials from foreign entities during the election. As far collusion and conspiracy, “there was none.” He insisted he was never asked by Trump to do anything illegal.
The White House blocked two other former aides from testifying before the House Judiciary Committee, but cleared Lewandowski to answer questions about obstruction of justice that were detailed in special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
But he refused to answer pointed questions, including those about the president instructing him to urge former Attorney General Jeff Sessions to limit the scope of the special counsel investigation.
Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., said the White House decision to claim executive privilege in limiting Lewandowski’s testimony and blocking two former aides from appearing before the committee is “dangerous.”
Nadler indicated the hearing could likely lead to a committee vote on impeachment, and said the “president would have us believe that he can willfully engage in criminal activity and prevent witnesses from testifying before Congress.”
“This is a cover up, plain and simple,” he said.
House Democrats are divided on impeachment, with moderates and those who hold seats in Republican-leaning congressional districts anxious about proceedings that polls show most Americans do not favor.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has said she would not call for an impeachment vote without House committees conducting full investigations.
Republicans have denounced the impeachment hearings as partisan ploy.
Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said the hearings were a charade to give political cover to those wary Democrats.
“You don’t have the votes,” Collins said.
And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said any impeachment by the House would not be taken up in the GOP-led Senate. McConnell said the Mueller report cleared the president of wrongdoing and the country should simply move on.
The impeachment hearings come as the 2020 presidential campaign heats up. Democratic candidates and Trump are using the issue to motivate their base voters.
Democrats are using the hearings to inform the public and galvanize support for impeachment.
The Mueller report outlined 10 instances where Trump allegedly sought to derail the special counsel.
Not giving the message
According to the report, Lewandowski told Mueller that the president on two occasions asked him to deliver a message to Sessions to limit the role of the investigation into obstruction of justice and publicly denounce it as unfair to the president.
Lewandowski never delivered that message but told the special counsel he asked Rick Dearborn, a White House deputy chief of staff, to give the message to Sessions.
During questioning, Lewandowski said he was never asked to do anything illegal, but said the Mueller report’s description of the exchange was correct. Lewandowski said he didn’t deliver the message to Sessions because he went on vacation.
A staff lawyer for Democrats grilled Lewandowski why he passed off the directive to Dearborn.
Lewandowski said Democrats have failed to accept the election of the president and have unfairly harassed Trump.
“They hate this president more than they love their country,” Lewandowski said.
That response brought repeated rebukes from Democratic lawmakers who scolded Lewandowski and noted that his potential campaign for U.S. Senate in New Hampshire is being backed by Trump.
Lewandowski used his Twitter account during the hearing to launch a new Senate campaign website.
White House aides can’t testify
Frustrated Democrats also continually noted the White House efforts to thwart their inquiry.
The White House blocked Dearborn from testifying Tuesday, as well as Rob Porter, the former White House staff secretary, who told the special counsel he was ordered to ask then-White House counsel Don McGahn to create a false record that McGahn was ordered to fire Sessions.
McGahn told the special counsel he refused to fire Sessions. The White House has also blocked his testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, citing executive privilege.
Mueller testified before the committee earlier this year but revealed little more than what was disclosed in his report.
The report detailed acts of obstruction of justice by the president, but left it to Congress to pursue charges or impeachment.
The White House action to block testimony to Congress about the instances outlined in the Mueller report has prompted Judiciary Committee Democrats to seek a federal court ruling to force an appearance of former officials.
Nadler told Lewandowski that he is aiding the president is obstructing Congress in its investigation and warned that similar actions led to the House impeachment of former President Richard Nixon.
The hearing is the first since the committee voted last week to hold an impeachment inquiry.
Next week the panel is expected to delve into the president’s real estate holdings.