House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler launched a series of hearings Tuesday highlighting President Donald Trump’s actions to educate the public and other lawmakers on reasons for impeachment — but the witnesses and the White House had other plans.
Two of the three witnesses don’t plan to show up on the orders of the White House, part of the Trump administration’s fight-all-the-subpoenas approach that leaves the committee to either file lawsuits to enforce the subpoenas or hold the witnesses in contempt.
And the third, former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, made clear early in his testimony that he would answer questions only about the report from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, as instructed by the White House the previous night.
Lewandowski would not make it easy. On some of Nadler’s first questions, he demanded exact references in the Mueller report — to the paragraph — to the information in the question.
“I’m looking for that reference on page 91, congressman,” Lewandowski said. “I’m trying to adhere to the White House’s request I answer questions that are provided in the Mueller report only.”
And when Nadler asked about the White House request, Lewandowski read from the White House letter. Democrats called it a filibuster and a charade, while Republicans forced two roll call votes during Nadler’s questioning, including one to adjourn.
Just like that, the hearing — held under new rules that also allow committee staff to question the witnesses — became a major test of how much the Judiciary Committee will be able to sway the opinions of the public and other lawmakers when it comes to impeachment.
The first hearing looked unlikely to produce much information for the public outside of what was already in the Mueller report released in May, other than once again demonstrating the White House resistance to congressional oversight efforts.
Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the committee’s top Republican, called the hearing a waste of time that would not substantively advance the panel’s investigation. He described it as, “Let’s read the Mueller report for audiobook,” and said it would be “talking about things that we’ve been talking about ad nauseum, ad nauseum, ad nauseum.”
But for Nadler, showing that obstruction appeared to be a key takeaway from the day’s events. The New York Democrat previously has pointed out that defying congressional subpoenas was one of the articles of impeachment on President Richard Nixon.
“Mr. Lewandowski is here and has vital information about presidential obstruction. But the White House wants to limit our and your ability to hear it all,” Nadler said. “I think we should call this what it is — an absolute cover-up by the White House.”
White House lawyers sat behind Lewandowski.
Nadler added that Trump “is obstructing our congressional investigation by preventing you from telling the American people the truth about his misconduct. He will not succeed. We will not be deterred.”
And he said the committee was “considering all available options” to enforce the subpoenas. The two witnesses who did not appear were senior White House official Rick Dearborn and former White House staff secretary Robert Porter.
Nadler’s insistence that this is an impeachment investigation helps strengthen the House’s argument in court to force Lewandowski and other witnesses to testify regardless of Trump’s claim of executive privilege, said Frank O. Bowman III, a law professor at the University of Missouri and author of “High Crimes & Misdemeanors: A History of Impeachment for the Age of Trump.”
“Impeachment just causes executive privilege to go ‘poof,’” Bowman said. “In my view, the House is entitled to answers about questions about whether the president has committed impeachable offenses.”
But just like previous witnesses who have declined to testify, the litigation route would take months to complete. Nadler has said his goal is for the panel to decide on impeachment before the end of the year.
And the result of the litigation is not certain. “The Supreme Court may indeed find that a president has a right to obtain confidential advice from those both inside and outside government,” said Ross Garber, who teaches political investigations and impeachments at Tulane Law School.
The Judiciary Committee has scheduled a hearing Monday, Sept. 23, entitled, “Presidential Corruption: Emoluments and Profiting Off the Presidency.” The foreign emoluments clause of the Constitution says presidents must get congressional approval before accepting payments or gifts from foreign governments.
Witnesses have not been announced. But that matter relies on experts who will comply without extensive litigation, Bowman said.
Lewandowski said Trump did not ask him to do anything illegal. In his opening statement, he echoed many talking points that Trump has amplified about the Mueller report.
“As for actual ‘collusion,’ or ‘conspiracy,’ there was none,” Lewandowski said. “What there has been however, is harassment of the President from the day he won the election.”
According to the Mueller report, Trump in 2017 asked Lewandowski to deliver a message to then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions “that Sessions should publicly announce that, notwithstanding his recusal from the Russia investigation, the investigation was ‘very unfair’ to the president, the president had done nothing wrong.”
A month later, Trump followed up with Lewandowski, who said the message had not yet been delivered, but would be soon, according to the report. However, he “did not want to deliver the president’s message personally.”
Lewandowski, in a tweet before the hearing, added “#Senate2020” to the end, a sign that he views the hearing as an opportunity to educate the public about his possible run for Senate from New Hampshire.