Donald Trump’s former campaign manager performed a masterclass in stonewalling and obfuscation – refusing to answer any meaningful questions posed to him by the Democrats on Capitol Hill, who became increasingly angry and frustrated.
Corey Lewandowksi, his hair buzzed short like that of the loyal soldier he was determined to be, repeatedly rejected efforts by his interlocutors to provide even the most basic information about his days working for the man who is now the president.
He so frequently resorted to the phrase “The White House has directed that I not disclose the substance of any discussion with the president or his advisers to protect executive branch confidentiality”, that it it took on the feel of a mantra. It was clear that no matter what anyone else thought of the interaction, the 45-year-old Mr Lewandowksi was performing for an audience of one.
Indeed, as Mr Lewandowksi deeply dug in his heels, Mr Trump tweeted his approval from Air Force One, where he was watching events while on a fundraising tour of California.
“Such a beautiful opening statement by Corey Lewandowski,” Mr Trump wrote. “Thank you Corey.”
In that opening statement, the man who served as Mr Trump’s campaign manager from January 2015 to June 2016, pointed out he had appeared before Congress on three previous occasions.
“We as a nation would be better served if elected officials like you concentrated your efforts to combat the true crises facing our country as opposed to going down rabbit holes like this hearing,” he said. “If instead of focusing on petty and personal politics, the committee focused on solving the challenges of this generation, imagine how many people we could help. Imagine how many lives we could save.”
Almost as soon as the Democrats sought to question Mr Lewandowski, events lurched towards chaos. Congressman Jerry Nadler, chair of the House judiciary committee and the man who called the hearing as part of a formal process to determine whether to seek the president’s impeachment, asked him if he had met alone with the president in June 2017 to discuss limiting the scope of the Mueller investigation.
Mr Lewandowski, who had been told by the White House only to talk about events he had already discussed with the special counsel, Robert Mueller, said he did not have a copy of the report in front of him. Mr Nadler stewed and simmered as a copy was found. He snapped that Mr Lewandowski was “filibustering”.
“I think we should call this what it is: an absolute cover-up by the White House,” said Mr Nadler. “Today’s cover-up is part of a pattern of the White House blocking Congress.”
Mr Lewandowski gave as good as he got. He confirmed he had met with then attorney general Jeff Sessions to discuss putting a limit on the scale of the Trump-Russia probe, but said he did not believe the president “asked me to do anything illegal”.
He was also supported by Republicans on the committee, who repeatedly interrupted Mr Nadler with objections and points of order. Ranking member Doug Collins, termed the hearing an “audiobook of the Mueller report”.
“We had Mr Mueller here. Had a long day of it. Judging by all accounts, it didn’t go real well,” he said.
Another Republican, John Ratcliffe of Texas, said: “They are going to bring back anybody, as much as they have to, to find something, anything to keep impeachment hopes alive.”
In response to one question, Mr Lewandowski, who is weighing up a Senate run in New Hampshire which Mr Trump has strongly backed, said he believed the Democrats on the committee hated Mr Trump more than they loved their country.
White House counsel Pat Cipollone told the committee in a letter on Monday that Mr Lewandowski could not testify about conversations with Mr Trump after he became president or with his senior advisors.
The White House also directed two other witnesses, former Trump White House aides Rob Porter and Rick Dearborn, not to testify. Mr Cipollone’s letter said they were “absolutely immune from compelled congressional testimony with respect to matters related to their service as senior advisers to the president”.
Tuesday’s hearing underscored the dilemma faced by the Democrats as they seek to turn the screws on Mr Trump, seemingly disappointed that Mr Mueller’s report cleared the president of colluding with Russia to influence the 2016 election, and failing to call for his indictment for obstructing justice, even though the report detailed many such instances.
While a majority of House Democrats support impeachment of the president, the speaker, Nancy Pelosi, is opposed to such a move, saying it could help energise Mr Trump’s base ahead of the 2020 elections.
Additional reporting by agencies