It’s not a secret that President Trump has committed an extraordinary number of impeachable offenses, nor is it a secret that he intends to counter the political threat of a congressional impeachment inquiry with nonsense, slander, bluster, and obstruction. In other words, he hopes his war on truth will allow him to prevent a clear reckoning with his worst abuses of power.
Whether Congress and the press allow his strategy to overwhelm them is beyond his control, but to judge by this week’s inaugural impeachment hearing with President Trump’s former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and its aftermath, Trump has almost every reason to suspect he will prevail—and his greatest source of impunity right now comes from leaders of the Democratic Party.
That House Speaker Nancy Pelosi opposes impeachment and has kept her party divided on the issue is not lost on Trump and his subordinates. They now boast that they can “defy congressional requests,” because Pelosi “has made it clear she is reluctant about impeachment [and] have calculated that there won’t be a public price to pay for stonewalling Congress, in part because the clock is running out.”
Pelosi has nurtured this dynamic all week. She encouraged her members to leak her displeasure with the House Judiciary Committee for saddling vulnerable members with impeachment baggage they’re scared to hold, and implicitly criticized the committee’s chairman, Jerry Nadler, for letting Lewandowski make a farce of the proceedings without holding him in contempt. The implication of these leaks was clear enough: Nadler can’t handle an impeachment inquiry without her help, and her help is not forthcoming, so he should fold it up.
The irony is that amid all the internal rancor and the zoo-like atmosphere of the Lewandowski hearing, the week’s events offered a glimpse of what a successful impeachment inquiry might look like—if Democratic leaders took the process seriously and made the gravity of the situation easy for reporters to grasp.
Near the end of Tuesday’s hearing, Judiciary Committee Democrats ceded the dais to Bill Berke, a veteran litigator they recruited to interrogate hostile witnesses. The fact that Nadler recognized the need to retain the services of a bulldog cross-examiner suggested an awareness that many of the people with intimate knowledge of Trump’s abuses of power remain loyal to him and will contemptuously stonewall his investigation.
Lewandowski, who’s perhaps Trump’s most smug, corrupt, dishonest caporegime, embodies that description. In happy partnership with committee Republicans, Lewandowski brought the hearing low. He insulted and mocked Democratic members, and frustrated their queries with dilatory tactics. As Lewandowski testified, Trump reportedly watched and reveled in his trashy antics, which were meant to distract the press with spectacle.
It might have worked but for Berke.
Within minutes, Berke cornered Lewandowski into acknowledging that he’s an exceedingly dishonest man with a great deal to hide. Lewandowski admitted to deceiving journalists on a routine basis, reserving the truth for rare and reluctant moments—such as testifying under oath before Congress—when lying might land him in jail. Don’t believe what he says on television, in other words. Believe what he revealed to the committee.
That turned out to be quite a lot.
Over the course of several hours before Berke took the helm, Lewandowski confirmed Trump asked him to coerce then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions into effectively ending the Russia investigation—an impeachable obstruction of justice; he revealed himself to be participating in Trump’s ongoing scheme to obstruct Congress by invoking executive privilege to conceal potentially criminal behavior—yet another impeachable offense; and he strongly suggested he’d been offered a pardon in exchange for protecting the president—a third impeachable abuse of power. Not bad for those paying attention.
Those who were not paying attention learned instead that Democrats “got a front-row seat…to the Lewandowski show,” as if that’s a thing that can be learned. The fact that one of Trump’s closest allies provided the committee multiple bases for impeaching him mostly did not register with most reporters. Within 24 hours of saying “I have no obligation to be honest with the media,” Lewandowski was welcomed back on CNN to spew more lies.
Yet despite this apparent determination—in the press and on Capitol Hill—to cede the factual realm to Trump and his henchmen, the recipe for leading a politically advantageous impeachment process is right there. For all his bravado, Lewandowski couldn’t handle 30 minutes of continuous questioning from a staff counsel without completely melting down. It just happened several hours into the hearing rather than right at the outset. Nadler didn’t hold Lewandowski in contempt, but with Pelosi’s support, he could have. And even without those ducks in a row, Lewandowski let plenty of incriminating information about Trump slip.
Journalists should take more pride in the work of fact finding, but Democrats can’t cower and hope reporters save them from Trump’s war on truth. They have a role to play, too, and it’s join the fight fully so the media and the public can’t be so easily distracted. Without that, the war is over, and Trump has won.