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Lewandowski's messy hearing leaves some Democrats questioning their tactics

Tensions are building within the House Democratic Caucus over the Judiciary Committee's march toward impeachment, with Democrats again at odds over their messaging and strategy during a crucial time facing their majority.

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Manu Raju
Dana Bash, CNN
CNN — Tensions are building within the House Democratic Caucus over the Judiciary Committee's march toward impeachment, with Democrats again at odds over their messaging and strategy during a crucial time facing their majority.

In the aftermath of Corey Lewandowski's testimony this week, some Democrats are openly questioning the wisdom of bringing forward the bombastic former Trump campaign manager, whose contentious exchanges with Democrats and stonewalling of their questions may have overshadowed a key aspect of his testimony: that President Donald Trump enlisted Lewandowski to tell the then-attorney general to limit the investigation into his 2016 campaign.

Conversations about the wisdom of bringing Lewandowski in to testify played out behind closed doors between Democratic leadership aides and committee staff in the run-up to Tuesday's hearing, sources told CNN. And on Wednesday, some Democrats openly questioned the need for the hearing.

"If I'm sitting at home, as a person who's struggling to pay for my insulin, I'm saying to myself, 'What the heck is going on in Washington?' " said Rep. Anthony Brindisi, a freshman Democrat from New York whose seat the GOP is targeting in 2020, when asked about the hearing. "It seems like nothing is getting done. Democrats and Republicans continue to fight. It's a sideshow."

Rep. Maxine Waters, an outspoken supporter of impeachment, said that while she believed that Lewandowski was "nailed" when he confirmed that he had been directed by Trump to urge then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to limit the probe into his campaign, she also said the committee should have brought forward another witness first as it opened its new round of impeachment hearings.

"I think that there are some others who should have come first," the California Democrat told CNN. "I didn't think that he was necessarily the best one, but since he was there I think that what came out of it was his attitude, something about his character and the way that he disrespected the committee."

Democratic leadership staff warned of spectacle

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, who has thrown cold water on moving forward on impeachment, told CNN on Wednesday that he had not seen the Lewandowski hearing so he didn't want to comment, but added: "Most people think it was sort of disruptive."

Asked if Democrats could be clearer in their messaging about their impeachment deliberations, the Maryland Democrat added: "I think it could be clearer, but always the message could be clearer. But I think the message is pretty clear. The Judiciary Committee is doing what it's constitutionally supposed to do."

Privately for weeks, Democrats recognized that the Lewandowski hearing could indeed turn into a sideshow. But the committee, facing the White House's blockade of key witnesses, faced a dilemma: Bring in Lewandowski and get rare testimony from a fact-witness of potential obstruction of justice -- but risk a circus-like atmosphere.

In the days leading up to the Lewandowski hearing, Democratic leadership staff warned Judiciary committee aides that it would be a spectacle that could get out of control, according to a senior Democratic source familiar with the conversation.

A committee source insisted that Democratic leadership staff and the Judiciary Committee had for months been carefully coordinating their plan for hearings, including bringing in nongovernment individuals like Lewandowski who would be unable to defy a congressional subpoena.

On Wednesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi spokeswoman Ashley Etienne said: "We supported Judiciary's hearing with Lewandowski because he was Trump's top henchman in his effort to shut down the Mueller investigation," saying the hearing "clearly demonstrated" the President had acted illegally.

Others acknowledge it was a messy hearing but argued it was successful.

"Look, these are going to be contentious hearings," said Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island, a Judiciary Committee Democrat who favors impeachment proceedings. "These are people who are part of an elaborate cover-up in an effort to obstruct Congress from getting to the truth. And this is going to be a rocky road. If people think people are just going to come forward and sort of admit all the elements of the crime and go home, that's not the way these things work."

Rep. Jerry Nadler, a New York Democrat who's the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, acknowledged the theatrics at the hearing "never help," saying on Wednesday: "It is intended to obscure."

But he also told CNN that Lewandowski's refusal to answer questions adds weight to the committee's push toward impeachment, citing article three of the Nixon impeachment resolution alleging he had obstructed Congress.

"We saw a witness instructed by the White House completely contemptuous of Congress who refused to answer relevant questions," Nadler said. "Just another instance of obstruction of Congress, and that's what article 3 of the Nixon impeachment was."

Frustration behind the scenes

But how Democrats are messaging their investigation remains a sore spot among many in the caucus. Nadler has been increasingly vocal in recent weeks that his panel is conducting an inquiry to determine whether to impeach the President, language that Pelosi has yet to embrace.

At a private meeting about two weeks ago, Pelosi expressed annoyance at House Judiciary staff for pushing ahead on impeachment and going further than many members of her caucus, according to several sources. Some Judiciary aides, she said, just want to impeach.

"Feel free to leak this," the California Democrat said, according to several sources in the room, a comment first reported by Politico.

At that same meeting, though, she also expressed support for Nadler's handling of the investigation and said she backed the moves he was making in court, the sources said. She didn't rule out impeachment in those remarks.

And in public, Pelosi has greenlit the Judiciary Committee's language in lawsuits -- seeking the underlying grand jury material in the probe by special counsel Robert Mueller and testimony from former White House counsel Don McGahn -- that says explicitly the committee is actively considering whether to move to impeach the President.

Some Democrats believe Pelosi is intentionally seeking to muddy the messaging in order to make it harder to impeach the President, something the speaker has said could help Trump's reelection in 2020, while others believe she's giving herself flexibility to please both sides of the caucus.

"It's all strategic," said one House Democrat who is frustrated with Pelosi over the issue.

The most important thing to Pelosi

At a closed-door caucus meeting on Wednesday, Pelosi told her caucus that the most important thing is winning in 2020 and beating Trump, per three sources. While she didn't rule out impeachment, lawmakers left with the impression that she wants Democrats to tread carefully with impeachment because she thinks it could ultimately help Trump.

To help keep the majority, Democrats need to hold seats like that of Brindisi, who said he has spoken directly with Pelosi and Nadler in recent days about his concerns over moving forward with impeachment.

"I talked to her a lot last week or so about it, and I walked away with a positive impression of where she stands on this," Brindisi said. "I think that she wants to see where the American people are, and I think she recognizes that the American people aren't there on impeachment right now, and we have to focus on areas where they are supportive, like lowering drug costs."

But other Democrats say the reason why their party won a House majority was not only on issues like health care but also on promises of holding Trump accountable.

"I think ultimately we will move forward," said Rep. Joaquin Castro, a Texas Democrat who's a member of the House Intelligence Committee.

Others say the combativeness of witnesses should not deter the impeachment investigation from moving ahead.

"It's not going to be pretty if they come and act like that, but they're not going to be rewarded by just being s***-disturbers," said Rep. Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat who sits on both the House Intelligence and Judiciary panels. "If they think that they can act that way and we're just going to say, 'You know what, we're not going to have any more hearings because it was a mess,' that's not -- we're not going to reward that behavior."

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