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Former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski is testifying publicly before the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday as the Democrat-led panel continues to gather evidence toward a possible push to impeach President Donald Trump.
Their fact-finding efforts may be stymied by the White House, however, which told the committee late Monday that it had directed Lewandowski not to discuss any post-election interactions with Trump beyond those already detailed in former special counsel Robert Mueller's report on Russian election meddling.
"To the best of my recollection, I don't recall ever having any conversations with foreign entities [as the Trump campaign chief] — let alone, any who were offering help to manipulate the outcome of the election," Lewandowski said in an opening statement provided by his spokeswoman to CNBC.
"As I have said publicly many times, anyone who attempted to illegally impact the outcome of the election should spend the rest of their life in jail," Lewandowski said.
Lewandowski, 45, managed Trump's campaign from January 2015 until his firing in June 2016, and remained his close confidant after the 2016 presidential election. As he publicly considers launching a Senate challenge against New Hampshire Democrat Jeanne Shaheen, Lewandowski has welcomed the opportunity to testify publicly before Congress.
"I am an open book," Lewandowski reportedly said in a Fox News Radio interview in August. "I want to go and remind the American people that these guys are on a witch hunt."
But in the opening moments of Lewandowski's cross-examination, the hearing ground to a halt.
Lewandowski refused to answer Democratic Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler's first question — about whether he met with Trump in the Oval Office in June 2017 — without being able to reference the specific text of the Mueller report, which he did not have in front of him.
Nadler continued speaking after his time expired, prompting ranking Republican Doug Collins of Georgia to call a procedural vote.
The delays clearly frustrated Democrats, who accused Lewandowski of filibustering. But Trump quickly applauded his former aide, tweeting that Lewandowski's opening statement, which recounted Trump's 2016 election victory, was "beautiful."
In a letter sent Monday night to Nadler, D-N.Y., White House counsel Pat Cipollone claimed that Lewandowski's conversations with Trump and his aides "are protected from disclosure by long-settled principles protecting Executive Branch confidentiality interests."
"As a result, the White House has directed Mr. Lewandowski not to provide information about such communications beyond the information provided in the portions of the [Mueller Report] that have already been disclosed to the Committee," Cipollone wrote.
White House spokesman Steven Groves echoed that stance in a statement Tuesday morning. "Any information about his communications with the President or with senior advisers to the President not already disclosed in the Mueller report ... remains confidential," Groves said.
"Congress cannot compel disclosure of the substance of those communications, and Mr. Lewandowski has been directed not to testify about them."
Nadler called the White House's position a "cover-up" in response.
"This is a shocking and dangerous assertion of executive privilege and absolute immunity," Nadler said. "The president would have us believe that he can willfully engage in criminal activity and prevent witnesses from testifying before Congress — even if they did not actually work for him or his administration."
Lewandowski is the first fact witness mentioned in the Mueller report to appear in the impeachment-related hearings who has not been blocked from testifying by the White House. Mueller testified about his report on Capitol Hill in July.
Other figures near Trump, including former White House communications director Hope Hicks and Annie Donaldson, ex-chief of staff to former White House counsel Don McGahn, were directed not to comply with congressional subpoenas for their testimony.
Two other former Trump aides — staff secretary Rob Porter and White House deputy chief of staff for policy Rick Dearborn — were subpoenaed to appear alongside Lewandowski on Tuesday. But the Department of Justice told the White House that both men are "absolutely immune" from testimony.
Lewandowski is mentioned dozens of times in Mueller's 448-page report on Russian election interference, possible coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign, and possible obstruction of justice by Trump himself.
The report says that Trump, in June 2017, told Lewandowski in an Oval Office meeting to give then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions a message directing Sessions to call Mueller's probe "very unfair."
Lewandowski said he understood the request but then asked Dearborn to deliver it for him, according to the Mueller report. Dearborn never delivered the message, according to Mueller's report.
Democrats on the Judiciary Committee recently edged closer to formally recommending Trump's impeachment, while maintaining that the president has obstructed justice while in office. Mueller's report listed numerous instances of possible obstruction by Trump, but the special counsel declined to recommend a charge against him. Attorney General William Barr and former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein declined to back an obstruction charge based on the report.