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Dems see Lewandowski’s combativeness as Trump impeachment fuel

President Donald Trump’s former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski sent Democrats into a rage Tuesday as he swatted down dozens of questions about potential obstruction of justice by the president while using the tense hearing as a launchpad for a possible U.S. Senate campaign.

Appearing before the House Judiciary Committee, Lewandowski tailored his remarks to the liking of his former boss, while Democrats tried with limited success to get the Trump loyalist to detail efforts by the president to effectively end former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. But the hearing armed Democrats with what they see as key ammunition in their drive toward impeachment of the president.

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House Judiciary Committee Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) suggested that Lewandowski’s refusal to answer questions about his conversations with Trump — at the behest of the White House — bolsters Democrats’ case to impeach the president, even as Speaker Nancy Pelosi remains opposed to the idea.

“When you refuse to answer these questions, you are obstructing the work of our committee. You are also proving our point for the American people to see: The president is intent on obstructing our legitimate oversight. You are aiding him in that obstruction,” Nadler told Lewandowski.

“And I will remind you that Article 3 of the impeachment against President [Richard] Nixon was based on obstruction of Congress,” Nadler added.

Two White House lawyers were seated behind an indignant Lewandowski as he repeatedly deferred to their demands to sharply restrict his testimony to what was already made public in Mueller’s 448-page report. Each time, Democrats grew more outraged as Lewandowski refused to discuss his conversations with the president, reciting a prepared statement from the White House.

“Mr. Lewandowski, you are like a fish being cleaned with a spoon — it’s very hard to get an answer out of you,” Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) quipped.

“This is House Judiciary, not a house party,” Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) added.

One Democrat, Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island, became so frustrated that he asked Nadler to move to hold Lewandowski in contempt of Congress.

Lewandowski more freely answered Republicans’ questions, at times launching an all-out defense of Trump and adopting Trump’s own harsh criticisms of the myriad congressional and criminal investigations that have ensnared him and his associates.

“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,” Lewandowski told the committee, in what top Democrats said was their first official “impeachment hearing.”

“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 continued.

Though Democrats struggled to glean new information from Lewandowski, his appearance was a small victory for the committee, which had yet to obtain public testimony from any eyewitness to the potential obstruction of justice episodes detailed in Mueller’s report.

Democrats were also hopeful that Lewandowski’s refusal to answer many questions would be seen as evidence of what Nadler has long emphasized: that obstruction of Congress, too, can be an impeachable offense.

“Your behavior in this hearing room has been unacceptable,” Nadler told him.

The hearing’s tensest moment came at the outset, when Lewandowski repeatedly refused to answer basic questions from Nadler (D-N.Y.) about his conversations with the president — regardless of whether they were cited in the Mueller report — and the hearing degenerated into a shouting match between Republicans and Democrats on the panel.

At one point, Lewandowski refused to answer a question about an Oval Office meeting he had with Trump, which was cited in the Mueller report. Lewandowski requested to view a copy of the report to confirm the meeting in question, prompting Democratic members of the committee to shake their heads and groan in disapproval.

Lewandowski sat for an April 6, 2018, interview with Mueller, according to the special counsel’s report, providing an eyewitness account of an effort by Trump to constrain Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election. Mueller obtained notes, emails and even LinkedIn exchanges.

In 2017, Trump deputized Lewandowski to approach then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions and order him either to restrict Mueller’s probe to future interference by Russia or be removed from his Cabinet post. Lewandowski, though, told Mueller he didn’t want to deliver that message to Sessions, so he asked former top White House aide Rick Dearborn to pass it along instead. Dearborn never followed through, Mueller found.

In his review of the episode, Mueller found that Trump’s actions met all the criteria that would typically result in an obstruction of justice charge. But Mueller also indicated that this team had determined at the outset not to judge whether Trump had committed a crime, owing in large part to a longstanding Justice Department opinion that says a sitting president is immune from indictment.

INTERACTIVE: See which House lawmakers support impeachment.

Lewandowski largely confirmed the version of events contained in Mueller’s report, at times complying with Democrats’ line of questioning by agreeing with the way Mueller’s report characterized his actions and responses to Trump’s directives.

Earlier Tuesday, Lewandowski teased his aggressive posture toward the committee’s Democrats, including a hashtag “Senate2020” on Twitter, a reference to his prospective challenge to Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) in his home state. Some Democrats criticized him for using the hearing as publicity for his potential Senate bid — a chance to more closely align with Trump, rather than dish on potential crimes.

During a break in the hearing, Lewandowski tweeted a link to a website for Stand with Corey, a new super PAC that filed with the Federal Election Commission earlier Tuesday. Lewandowski said it was a “website just launched to help a potential Senate run.” The organization will be run by three veteran Republican operatives: Michael Biundo, John Brabender and Marty Obst, POLITICO confirmed.

“There’s clearly a grassroots movement dedicated to recruiting Corey Lewandowski for the Senate, and we believe that it’s time to draft Corey into this race and show that the voters of New Hampshire are behind him,” Biundo told WMUR, which first reported details of the super PACs organizers.

Trump himself tweeted support for Lewandowski just moments after he completed his opening remarks.

“Such a beautiful Opening Statement by Corey Lewandowski! Thank you Corey!” Trump tweeted.

Lewandowski has a history of combativeness with House Democrats in congressional testimony. He refused to answer a slew of questions when he faced the House Intelligence Committee last year behind closed doors.

Two other Mueller witnesses on the committee’s schedule — Dearborn and former White House staff secretary Rob Porter — both declined to appear under orders from the White House that were issued late Monday. The White House cited “absolute immunity” in ordering them not to testify. Lewandowski was also ordered not to discuss his conversations with the president, other than those detailed in the Mueller report.

Nadler assailed the White House effort to block or restrict the three men’s testimony as another example of “obstruction” by the president and his administration.

For the White House, Tuesday’s hearing is the latest effort to block former advisers from cooperating with Congress. The White House has offered various reasons that former aides cannot testify — including that top presidential advisers have “absolute immunity” from appearing before Congress and, in turn, cannot answer questions about the obstruction of justice allegations contained in the 448-page Mueller report. It applied this rationale to Dearborn and Porter.

Lewandowski never held a formal role in the Trump administration but has served as an outside adviser to the president — and the White House cited that relationship in ordering him not to disclose the contents of his private conversations with the president, other than what has already been publicly disclosed in Mueller’s report. The White House has cited a longstanding Justice Department opinion that says even informal advisers can be shielded from testimony since the president should be able to rely on their confidential advice.

Nadler said on Monday that he considered Lewandowski’s testimony to be an “impeachment hearing,” a remark that comes as Democratic leaders continue to openly disagree on what to call the committee’s impeachment probe.

James Arkin and Darren Samuelsohn contributed reporting.

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