WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Corey Lewandowski, President Donald Trump’s former campaign manager and close confidant, on Tuesday vigorously defended his former boss and lashed out at Democrats but repeatedly dodged their questions during a contentious hearing before a U.S. congressional panel considering whether to impeach Trump.
Lewandowski, who is considering running for a U.S. Senate seat from New Hampshire, tangled with Democratic members of the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee and told the panel he would refuse to answer questions about his conversations with Trump that Democrats view as evidence of obstruction of justice.
Lewandowski was the first impeachment witness to appear before the committee since former Special Counsel Robert Mueller testified in July about his inquiry that detailed Russian interference in the 2016 election to boost Trump’s candidacy and Trump’s actions to impede the investigation.
“We as a nation would be better served if elected officials like yourselves concentrated your efforts to combat the true crises facing our country as opposed to going down rabbit holes like this hearing,” Lewandowski, appearing after being subpoenaed, told the Democratic-led panel.
The White House on Monday told Lewandowski not to discuss conversations he had with Trump after he became president including an exchange that Democrats view as evidence that Trump committed obstruction of justice by trying to interfere in a federal investigation and may need to be impeached.
White House lawyers sat behind Lewandowski during the hearing.
Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat, began the hearing focused on “presidential obstruction of justice and abuse of power” by slamming the White House’s legal team for instructing Lewandowski to limit the scope of his testimony by invoking a doctrine called executive privilege.
“We should call this what it is: an absolute cover-up by the White House,” Nadler said.
“The White House is advancing a new and dangerous theory: the crony privilege,” Nadler added.
Under the U.S. Constitution, the House has the power to vote to impeach a president while the Senate then would hold a trial on whether to remove him from office. The House is controlled by Democrats and the Senate by Trump’s fellow Republicans.
Two other witnesses – former Trump White House aides Rob Porter and Rick Dearborn – had been scheduled to appear but the White House directed them not to testify, contending they were “absolutely immune from compelled congressional testimony with respect to matters related to their service as senior advisers to the President.”
Lewandowski sidestepped numerous questions from Democrats but confirmed Mueller’s account of a June 2017 meeting at the White House in which Trump asked him to deliver a message to then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
The message said Sessions should shift the Russia probe’s focus to future elections despite his recusal from the investigation – a move that would have spared Trump’s 2016 campaign of scrutiny. Sessions ultimately did not meet with Lewandowski, who held no government position at the time.
Lewandowski at times provided details not included in the Mueller’s investigative report released in April, despite the White House’s instructions to limit his testimony. Under questioning by Democratic Representative Hank Johnson, Lewandowski said he never delivered the message to Sessions because he went on beach vacation with his children.
Lewandowski also acknowledged he did not want to confer with Sessions at the Justice Department, which would have created a public record of his planned meeting.
At a second meeting a month later, Trump asked about the status of his message and said Lewandowski should “tell Sessions he was fired” if he would not meet with Lewandowski, according to the Mueller report.
“I took that as a joke,” Lewandowski testified about the firing threat.
“The president didn’t ask me to do anything illegal and he never asked me to keep anything secret,” Lewandowski testified.
Lewandowski faced friendlier questions from Republican lawmakers, who accused Democrats of pursuing an endless and fruitless investigation of Trump for political purposes.
Lewandowski assailed the federal investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
“It is now clear the investigation was populated by many Trump haters who had their own agenda – to try and take down a duly elected president of the United States. As for actual ‘collusion’ or ‘conspiracy,’ there was none. What there has been however, is harassment of the president from the day he won the election,” Lewandowski added.
Trump on Twitter praised Lewandowski’s opening statement as “beautiful.” Trump in August called Lewandowski “a fantastic guy” who would be a “great senator” and that “I like everything about him.”
The hearing sometimes bordered on political farce.
Democratic Representative Hakeem Jeffries asked Lewandowski if he was Trump’s political enforcer.
“No, I don’t believe so,” Lewandowski responded.
“Are you the hit man, the bag man, the lookout, or all of the above?” Jeffries asked.
“I think I’m the good looking man, actually,” Lewandowski said.
Republican Representative Ken Buck asked Lewandowski if he thought Russian President Vladimir Putin was laughing about the hearing and thinking of committee Democrats as “useful idiots.” Democrat Sheila Jackson-Lee objected to use of the phrase.
Trump fired Lewandowski as his campaign manager in June 2016 but the two remained close. During the campaign, Lewandowski had often generated controversy including when he was charged with misdemeanor battery after being accused of forcefully grabbing a female reporter in Florida. The charge was later dropped.
Reporting by David Morgan; Additional reporting by Steve Holland and Eric Beech; Editing by Peter Cooney and Will Dunham