Frank Bruni: Democrats keep falling into the Corey Lewandowski trap
(Illustration by Ben Wiseman; photograph by Doug Mills | The New York Times) Democrats keep underestimating the audacity of President Donald Trump and his tribe.
Did that look of unalloyed contempt come naturally to Corey Lewandowski, or did he rehearse it? I picture him in front of a mirror as his “testimony” before the House Judiciary Committee approached, fine-tuning his sneer, perfecting his glare, testing different tilts of his head to see which conveyed maximal disgust with his inquisitors. He was hellbent on acing this performance.
And ace it he did, if the goal was to distill the Trump ethos into a few ugly hours. A flamboyant defiance of authority? Check. An extravagant disdain for precedent and procedure? Check. Cockiness, a persecution complex and a proudly situational relationship with the truth? Check, check, check. Bashing the media and even taking a whack at Hillary Clinton, he was Donald Trump in absentia, Donald Trump in excelsis, showing his former boss and future patron how scornfully Trumplike he could be.
You know those nature videos in which some vain and feathery bird, in the grip of a mating ritual, puffs up his chest and fans his plumage to impress the object of his adoration? This was the political equivalent of that. He preened and Trump swooned, tweeting about how “beautiful” the spectacle was.
So Lewandowski, who’s apparently on the cusp of a Senate campaign in New Hampshire and would obviously like Trump’s help, got what he wanted. But did Democrats, who had summoned him to Capitol Hill on Tuesday to be the first witness in their nascent impeachment inquiry?
Not really, not from where I sit, and that reflects the sad and alarming fact that they still can’t quite wrap their minds around the impudence of Trump and his enablers, they’re still putting too much faith in an old-fashioned rulebook and they’re still not looking around corners as well as they should be.
Alas, the route to the far side of Trump probably doesn’t run through committee hearings like the one that Lewandowski predictably turned into a farce. It runs through the ballot box. Nancy Pelosi gets this, and it’s possible that some of the House Democrats who keep muttering about impeachment get it, too — and are either fulfilling what they see as their constitutional obligation or trying to mollify a restive Democratic base. But I do worry that they’re blundering, and I hope against hope that after Democratic voters pick their presidential nominee, Democratic lawmakers will concentrate their energies on getting that person elected.
How, for instance, did Jerry Nadler, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and his colleagues on that panel not realize that Lewandowski’s appearance would play out precisely as it did? Any diligent student of Trump and his loyalists could and should have expected his stonewalling, deflection and outright mockery, and if Democrats didn’t possess whatever requisite combination of legal authority and political will to hold him in contempt right then and there, they shouldn’t have given him the stage. Because to let him behave that way — he even sent out a fundraising solicitation during a pause in the hearing — and then go merrily on his way is to look pathetically weak.
Yes, they got him to verify, on national television, that Trump had tried to enlist him in what amounts to obstruction of justice. But that was already in Robert Mueller’s report, and it got lost somewhat in the reciprocal grandstanding and ambient vitriol. The Americans who tuned in — a small minority — had already made up their minds about Trump’s culpability and how much to care about it, or they saw, more than anything else, a boatload of blowhards making a lot of nasty Washington noise. When everybody’s seething and sniping, the effect is equalizing and indiscriminate. Nobody looks good.
My sense is that Democrats to some extent keep being surprised and taken aback by just how many people are willing to abase themselves for Trump and by just how expansively they’ll shred etiquette, trash tradition, junk their reputations and test the very boundaries of the law. It’s one of the great perversions of his administration: that a president so undeserving of fealty and protection gets a magnitude of it — from congressional Republicans, from Steve Mnuchin, from Bill Barr, from Wilbur Ross, now from Joseph Maguire, acting director of national intelligence — that far worthier predecessors in the White House didn’t.
Part of what could be called the Corey Lewandowski trap is Democrats’ failure to accept this. Part of it is their assumption that Trump’s cocky comrades would hesitate to display the garish public colors that they do. But those colors are much of what the president’s supporters like and what fires them up. They embrace Trump as someone who raises a middle finger to propriety, to elites and to the establishment, because they somehow don’t see him as part of that crowd and because they deem that gesture necessary and courageous. So Lewandowski happily mimicked it, not just at the hearing but also the morning after, during an interview with CNN’s Alisyn Camerota, when he inaccurately described Mueller’s report while blithely conceding that he hadn’t read it.
Lewandowski’s performance, like Maguire’s refusal last week to share any details of the whistleblower’s complaint, was just the latest reminder of the terrible corner that Trump puts Democrats in. Proudly flouting convention and brazenly bending the law, he dares them to try to muscle him back into line, but it turns out that any such effort is anything but swift and sure. And any such effort is interpreted by rigidly partisan voters along rigidly partisan lines.
What’s more, the frequency of his questionable or outrageous behavior keeps Democrats in a near-permanent state of hysteria that can easily look like overreaction and makes many of the offenses that they’re condemning blur. Was Lewandowski’s snit before Nadler & Company really any more reprehensible and infuriating than the worst from Trumplandia the week before? Is the whistleblower’s reported complaint urgent in the context of Trump’s rampant conflicts of interest and sustained nuttiness?
It’s overwhelming — by design, I think. Trump has discovered that shamelessness is its own reward, and his disciples have learned that lesson well. Lewandowski all but strutted out of that hearing room as Democrats muttered meekly about a contempt citation that would involve time, courts, etc. There’s a way to sidestep that trap. Hint: It has to do with November 2020.
Frank Bruni is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.