Democrats press Nadler to hold Lewandowski in contempt

Democrats are pressuring House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerLawmakers prep ahead of impeachment hearing Trump: Fox News 'panders' to Democrats by having on liberal guests Democrats express confidence in case as impeachment speeds forward MORE (D-N.Y.) to hold Corey LewandowskiCorey R. LewandowskiGeorgia ready for unpredictable Senate race Trump on Harris dropping out of race: 'We will miss you Kamala!' Key takeaways from first public impeachment hearing MORE in contempt of Congress after the former Trump campaign manager stonewalled lawmakers during his testimony earlier in the week.

“He operated in contempt of Congress, and yes, I believe he should be” held in contempt. “And I’ve expressed that to the chair,” Rep. Madeleine DeanMadeleine DeanImpeachment inquiry enters critical new phase Democrat unveils bill requiring banks to identify suspicious activity related to guns Democratic lawmakers call on Judiciary Committee to advance 'revenge porn' law MORE (D-Pa.), a member of the Judiciary panel, told The Hill on Thursday.

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“The only purpose to do it is to have teeth in it and to send a message to Mr. Lewandowski that he has to come forth, tell the truth and live up to his obligations under the subpoena,” she added. “His performance was an absurdity.”

Both Nadler and Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiDemocrats gear up for high-stakes Judiciary hearing White House, Democrats strike tentative deal to create Space Force in exchange for federal parental leave benefits: report Trump: Fox News 'panders' to Democrats by having on liberal guests MORE (D-Calif.) have expressed interest in holding Lewandowski in contempt, with Pelosi telling members on Thursday that Democrats should have acted "right then and there" at Tuesday’s Judiciary hearing when Lewandowski refused to cooperate with Democrats.

But Pelosi also seemed to defer any decisions to Nadler.

"I trust the committee and the path that they are on," she said Thursday.

Anticipating an uncooperative witness, some Judiciary Democrats initially consulted the House general counsel about a contempt vote prior to Lewandowski’s testimony, sources familiar with the discussions say. But the counsel recommended against moving to hold him in contempt.

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Lewandowski’s pugnacious behavior and refusal to answer questions has triggered a new wave of Democrats to voice support for holding him in contempt.

While the former Trump campaign aide was ordered by the White House not to go beyond the four corners of the Mueller report, he took it a step further by refusing to answer questions about his private conversations with Trump or claiming he did not remember them.

He also challenged Democrats during the hearing, including accusing Rep. Sheila Jackson LeeSheila Jackson LeeOvernight Defense: Trump leaves door open to possible troop increase in Middle East | Putin offers immediate extension of key nuclear treaty Lawmakers to watch during Wednesday's impeachment hearing Lawmakers honor JFK on 56th anniversary of his death MORE (Texas) of going on a rant and arguing that “Trump haters” were seeking to take down the president.

Democratic Judiciary members are so frustrated by Lewandowski’s performance that they are urging Nadler to hold a closed-door meeting either Thursday or Friday about what action to take against him, committee members said.

“There is a lot of agitating,” one Judiciary member said.

Rep. Hank JohnsonHenry (Hank) C. JohnsonBlack lawmakers condemn Trump's 'lynching' remarks Maloney to serve as acting Oversight chairwoman after Cummings's death The 13 House Democrats who back Kavanaugh's impeachment MORE (D-Ga.), a senior committee member, said Nadler and other panel leaders had anticipated the stonewalling, with Lewandowski dropping hints in the days leading up to the hearing. Now Johnson is among those supporting a contempt vote, to prevent Lewandowski's recalcitrance from becoming the norm.

"Many members are in accord with the Speaker about wanting to protect the integrity of our process and send a message to future witnesses that their contemptuous conduct can meet the same fate as Lewandowski — should we hold him in contempt,” Johnson said.

"I suppose some might say that to do that would be distractive," Johnson said of would-be Democratic critics. "But the greater issue is the integrity of our process, and the fact that we can't allow it to be trashed like Lewandowski trashed it — all the way from his opening statement to his exit from the committee room."

If Democrats initiate the contempt process, Johnson said, it would likely be soon.

Democrats argue that if they don’t take that step, other witnesses will copy Lewandowski’s playbook in dodging questions and stalling during the hearing.

Some Democrats also say it would look bad if they do not push back against the White House claims of privilege over the testimony of someone who has never worked in the administration. Nadler and other Democrats reject those immunity claims.

Rep. Eric SwalwellEric Michael SwalwellLawmakers prep ahead of impeachment hearing Trump: Fox News 'panders' to Democrats by having on liberal guests Democrats could introduce articles of impeachment next week MORE (D-Calif.), another Judiciary member and former 2020 presidential candidate, is among those pressing for contempt.

"We're engaging with the chairman about that," he said Thursday, without specifying a timeline.

After members finished questioning Lewandowski on Tuesday, Nadler said he was considering holding Lewandowski in contempt, which would require a resolution to be voted on in Judiciary before a floor vote.

“Mr. Lewandowski, your behavior in this hearing room has been completely unacceptable. It is part of a pattern of a White House desperate for the American people not to hear the truth," Nadler said at the hearing. "I’ve been asked several times today whether the committee will hold you in contempt. It is certainly under consideration.”

Democrats sought to question the longtime Trump ally on his role in a key episode of obstruction by Trump that former special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerTrump says he'll release financial records before election, knocks Dems' efforts House impeachment hearings: The witch hunt continues Speier says impeachment inquiry shows 'very strong case of bribery' by Trump MORE examined, in which the president asked Lewandowski to pass along a message to then-Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsThe shifting impeachment positions of Jonathan Turley Rosenstein, Sessions discussed firing Comey in late 2016 or early 2017: FBI notes Justice Dept releases another round of summaries from Mueller probe MORE in 2017 to reverse his recusal and set limits on the Russia probe.

But for the most part, Lewandowski’s combative squabbles with Democrats and refusal to answer questions overshadowed the role he played.

Still, Democrats say they were able to prove through staff questioning that Lewandowski is a liar who has repeatedly misled the public about his involvement with the president.

Democrats have voted to hold top Trump officials in contempt before. In July, the House voted on criminal contempt charges against Attorney General William BarrWilliam Pelham BarrFive things to watch in Russia probe review Trump, GOP shift focus from alleged surveillance abuse to Durham Russia probe Trump: Giuliani to deliver report on Ukraine trip to Congress, Barr MORE and Commerce Secretary Wilbur RossWilbur Louis RossSpace race is on: US can't afford congressional inaction in this critical economic sector Trump escalates fight over tax on tech giants The Hill's Morning Report - Intel panel readies to hand off impeachment baton MORE for refusing to respond to Democratic subpoenas.

But the contempt votes did not lead to any serious consequences for Barr and Ross since the Justice Department, led by Barr, opted not to prosecute Trump’s Cabinet members.

If Democrats pursued contempt against Lewandowski, it’s unclear whether they would opt for the same criminal variety they applied to Barr and Ross. Johnson, for one, suggested Democrats may instead push for inherent contempt — a rarely used device authorizing both the House and Senate to “detain and imprison” an individual who refuses to comply with congressional demands, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Such an approach has not been used for nearly a century — employing the House sergeant-at-arms to go after Trump officials would be a highly unusual move — but some Democrats say the degree of stonewalling demands an aggressive response.

“We should be using every tool, and that includes fines,” Assistant Speaker Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) told The Hill.

Other Democrats said that charging Lewandowski with contempt will send a strong message to other Trump aides and associates.

Lewandowski “went in without any intent to answer any questions. It was somewhere between an audition for a political office and trying to get an extra-big Christmas card from Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpLawmakers prep ahead of impeachment hearing Democrats gear up for high-stakes Judiciary hearing Warren says she made almost M from legal work over past three decades MORE,” Progressive Caucus Co-Chairman Mark PocanMark William PocanHouse progressives may try to block vote on Pelosi drug bill Overnight Health Care: House to vote next week on drug prices bill | Conway says Trump trying to find 'balance' on youth vaping | US spent trillion on hospitals in 2018 Progressive leader warns members could vote no on drug price bill as it stands MORE (D-Wis.) told The Hill.

“At that point, we should have put him in a place we needed to,” he said. “That isn’t what a witness is supposed to do.”