Corey Lewandowski confirms Mr. Trump asked him to pressure the attorney general, but says the president never asked him to do anything illegal.
Mr. Lewandowski, under sharp questioning by Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee, confirmed that Mr. Trump had once asked him to help pressure the attorney general to curtail the scope of the Russia investigation, but said he did not believe he had been asked to do anything illegal.
After initially stonewalling Democrats’ questions, Mr. Lewandowski appeared to abruptly change strategies, confirming the details of a key episode from the Mueller investigation — and even providing new information that wasn’t in the special counsel’s report. Under questioning by Representative Hank Johnson, Democrat of Georgia, Mr. Lewandowski said he never relayed the message because he went on a beach vacation with his children.
The episode, which occurred in June 2017, is one of several instances of possible obstruction of justice documented by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III.
As Mr. Mueller recounts in Volume II of his report, Mr. Trump met with Mr. Lewandowski in the Oval Office two days after he directed Donald F. McGahn II, the White House counsel at the time, to fire the special counsel. This time, Mr. Trump criticized Jeff Sessions, then the attorney general, for recusing himself from overseeing the Russia investigation, and asked Mr. Lewandowski to deliver the attorney general a message that he dictated on the spot.
It said that Mr. Sessions should give a speech announcing that Mr. Trump had been treated unfairly and that he would limit the scope of the special counsel investigation.
“Didn’t you think is was a little strange the president would sit down with you one-on-one and ask you to do something that you knew was against the law?” asked Representative Steve Cohen, Democrat of Tennessee. “Did that strike you as strange?”
Mr. Lewandowski curtly disagreed: “I didn’t think the president asked me to do anything illegal.”
Mr. Lewandowski began his appearance before the House Judiciary Committee with remarks that sounded more like a campaign speech than testimony in a congressional investigation, signaling that he plans to use the hearing to burnish his own political brand while fiercely defending the president.
“I had the privilege — and it was a privilege — of helping transform the Trump campaign from a dedicated but small, makeshift organization to a historically and unprecedented political juggernaut,” Mr. Lewandowski said in his comments, which began by branding Democrats’ inquiry into whether to impeach Mr. Trump “very unfair.”
Mr. Lewandowski’s remarks could have doubled as a campaign address from a carbon copy of the president himself. IThey were punctuated with references to the scourge of illegal immigration, knocks on Hillary Clinton, and brutal takedowns of Democrats.
“The House Majority has failed the American people,” Mr. Lewandowski said. “Both by supporting illegal immigrants pouring across our borders killing innocent Americans and failing to solve the opioid crisis, where 130 Americans die daily from overdoses — that’s the equivalent of a 9/11-level tragedy occurring every 23 days.
Given that he has been considering a run for the Senate from New Hampshire for the last several weeks, Mr. Lewandowski and his allies see the hearing as an opportunity to promote his allegiance to Mr. Trump in a way that could benefit him politically. Mr. Lewandowski made no secret that he was using the hearing to further his own political ambitions. During a break that he requested, he tweeted out a link to a website for a new super PAC that was created today, “Stand With Corey.”
Mr. Lewandowski has talked to allies about recapturing the outsider energy that Mr. Trump tapped into during the Republican primary in New Hampshire in February 2016. The hearing gives him a powerful platform to attack Democrats as bent on destroying the president, and to portray himself as a fierce defender of his former boss. It is also a chance for Mr. Lewandowski to show the public how Trumpian he can be, and to prove his loyalty to his boss.
“We as a nation would be better served if elected officials like you concentrated your efforts to combat the true crises facing our country as opposed to going down rabbit holes like this hearing,” Mr. Lewandowski said.
Democrats were just as cantankerous as they tried, and failed, to extract answers from Mr. Lewandowski.
Democrats’ questioning of Mr. Lewandowski was never going to be amicable. But it took no more than a minute of questioning for the hearing to begin to breakdown entirely.
Almost immediately, Mr. Lewandowski made clear he intended to do whatever he could to slow down the proceedings, including demanding that Democrats read him the section of the Mueller report about which they were questioning him.
When Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, the committee’s chairman, asked Mr. Lewandowski if it was correct, as stated in the Mueller report, that he had met alone with Mr. Trump in the Oval Office in the summer of 2017, Mr. Lewandowski balked.
“Could you repeat the exact language of the report, sir?” he said. “Congressman, I would like you to refresh my memory of the report so I could read along,” he said, noting that he had not brought along a copy of the more than 400-page document.
An exasperated Mr. Nadler had staff give Mr. Lewandowski a print copy of the report.
“Mr. Chairman, where on page 90 is it?” Mr. Lewandowski said.
“Do you not have an independent recollection?” Mr. Nadler shot back.
Eventually, Mr. Lewandowski confirmed that he had been in the Oval Office, but Mr. Nadler’s time ran out without any meaningful fact-finding. Republicans soon picked up where the witness left off, berating the Democrats for what they said was an unfair process.
Early on, Representative Doug Collins, Republican of Georgia, forced two votes on the committee’s rules and whether to adjourn. Democrats defeated both, but only after a long interlude.
Mr. Trump watched the hearing from Air Force One, cheering on Mr. Lewandowski as he spoke.
As Mr. Trump traveled from New Mexico to California on Tuesday afternoon, he had the televisions aboard Air Force One tuned into the hearing, according to people familiar with what was taking place.
The president and the staff traveling with him loved Mr. Lewandowski’s combativeness.
And within moments of Mr. Lewandowski’s first refusal to answer Mr. Nadler’s questions about his conversations with the president, Mr. Trump tweeted his appreciation for “such a beautiful opening statement.”
The White House ordered two other former senior officials not to show up.
The witness table at Tuesday’s hearing was supposed to be a good deal more crowded. Democrats had issued subpoenas for Mr. Dearborn and Rob Porter, the former White House staff secretary, to appear with Mr. Lewandowski.
But on Monday, the White House counsel, Pat A. Cipollone, told the committee that Mr. Trump had directed both men not to show up because they were “absolutely immune” from congressional subpoenas as former senior presidential advisers. Mr. Nadler called the White House’s position “a shocking and dangerous assertion of executive privilege and absolute immunity.”
Mark Mazzetti contributed reporting.