Washington (CNN)It was meant to be the moment when Democrats started to knit a narrative of presidential malfeasance that many of them hope will trigger impeachment.
But it turned into an iconic Trump-era spectacle that served instead to show how the White House and its acolytes have made a mockery of the checks and balances of the Washington system.
A farcical House Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday featuring Corey Lewandowski, President Donald Trump’s ex-campaign manager, emphasized how Democrats are struggling to hold Trump to account.
Party leaders were left to explain why they had not been more nimble in questioning a witness loaded for bear, since everyone knew Lewandowski would show up with the intention of causing havoc.
After hours of frustrating cross-examination that one of their number, Rep. Hank Johnson of Georgia, compared to “a fish being cleaned with a spoon,” Democrats were left with a conundrum: how to use televised hearings to tease out damning passages of the Mueller report when Trump and his gang are determined to turn them into a circus.
Their broader strategy of using their House majority to slowly build a pattern of presidential abuse of power and obstruction of justice has yet to reach a critical mass. On the evidence of Tuesday, it may never do so.
It was a great day for the White House, however.
Its strategy of curtailing Lewandowski’s testimony by foreshadowing controversial executive privilege claims appeared to be an attempt to goad Democrats into another protracted court battle that could delay a day of reckoning.
By sunset, Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-New York, warned that Lewandowski risked being held in contempt, for helping a White House “desperate for the American people not to hear the truth.”
Trump’s army of Republican committee members, meanwhile, more eager to catch his eye as he watched on Air Force One than to honor their lawmakers’ duty to constrain the executive, played along with Lewandowski, relishing the chance to grandstand.
“You had a pretty good candidate,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican who’s one of Trump’s closest allies in Congress.
“The best,” the ex-campaign manager replied.
A new step toward impeachment
The hearing marked the first big oversight drama since Democrats redefined the rules of their investigation to style committee meetings as impeachment hearings.
Though Democrats have yet to open a full impeachment process, the decision sent an important statement to activists and lawmakers who think party leaders are moving too slowly against a President they see as guilty of a riot of law breaking.
But when Lewandowski’s histrionics and GOP obstruction tactics caused Nadler to begin rolling his eyes moments into the hearing, it was a sign of how contentious things would become.
Some Democrats tacitly admitted that the White House currently has the upper hand — but predicted the tables would turn.
“The President, credit to him, is winning the short game: He is successfully obstructing and confusing the American people,” Rep. Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat, told CNN’s Erin Burnett.
“But there is going to be a cascade of court opinions against him, saying that the obstruction, telling witnesses not to testify, is unlawful,” he said.
The ultimate Trump loyalist
Perhaps the most Trumpian of the President’s men, Lewandowski put on a bravura performance, dodging questions, playing for time and lavishing praise on the commander in chief.
Repeatedly, playing the role of a conscientious witness, Lewandowski asked for page references to flesh out questions by Democratic lawmakers — a tip he might have picked up from special counsel Robert Mueller’s appearance in July.
His prepared testimony sounded like an opening monologue by Fox News host Sean Hannity, hitting conservative talking points on the Russia inquiry, immigration and Hillary Clinton’s emails.
Recalling the President’s journey down the golden escalator in Trump Tower to launch his campaign like an awakening, Lewandowski lauded his former candidate’s “unprecedented political juggernaut.”
It wasn’t long before Trump thanked Lewandowski, who would benefit from the President’s support if, as expected, he launches a Senate run in New Hampshire next year.
“Such a beautiful Opening Statement,” Trump tweeted.
Sporting a severe short-back-and-sides haircut that vaguely recalled the flattop once modeled by President Richard Nixon’s political henchman H.R. Haldeman, Lewandowski stood firm in the face of volleys of Democratic attacks.
Adding to the 1970s vibe, Nadler warned Lewandowski he was treading dangerous historic ground.
“I will remind you that Article 3 of the impeachment against President Nixon was based on obstruction of Congress. You are instructed to answer the questions,” Nadler said.
Lewandowski’s tactics revealed just how far the White House plans to go in pursuit of an expansive and questionable executive privilege strategy.
At one point, he was asked about conversations he’d had with the President about payments made to several women who claimed they’d had affairs with Trump years before the election.
When Lewandowski played his executive privilege card for the umpteenth time, Nadler warned: “I believe the Nixon case established the very ironclad principle that discussions regarding criminal acts are not privileged.”
There is no jurisprudence to support the White House’s claim that people such as Lewandowski, who were not even employed by the federal government, can be covered by executive privilege claims. But the strategy is effective as a stalling tactic.
Democrats may need to rethink
Some commentators are suggesting that the aggressive White House approach means Democrats will have to adjust their tactics.
“It is itself obstructive that the White House would be attempting to actually prevent witnesses from testifying,” Susan Hennessey, a CNN national security and legal analyst, said on “The Situation Room.”
“However, it is a really, really effective (tactic) and until Congress can adjust their strategy to figure out how to deal with the hostile witnesses, how to deal with this stonewalling, this is going to continue to be a challenge,” she said.
Several Democrats pressed Lewandowski on Mueller’s finding that Trump had asked him to lean on then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to curtail the special counsel’s investigation. Lewandowski did not follow through on the request.
Initially, Lewandowski declined to talk about the discussions. He later changed tactics and under questioning from Johnson confirmed Mueller’s finding that the President had asked him to tell Sessions he was unhappy with the appointment of a special counsel and that he had written down the message.
“You felt a little squeamish about delivering the message, correct?” Johnson asked Lewandowski. “You chickened out.”
The witness replied: “I went on vacation.”
The revelation was the most significant deliverable from the hearing from the Democrats, and could eventually form part of a damning case against the President.
But the fact it took so long to extract and will be overshadowed by the antics of Lewandowski and his Republican supporters underlines the daunting nature of the Democrats’ task.
It was a brief moment in an afternoon of ill-tempered futility exemplified by a clash between Lewandowski and Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Maryland Democrat who told the witness his executive privilege arguments were as believable as the tooth fairy.
“My children are watching, so thank you for that,” Lewandowski replied.