Nadler opened the hearing by reminding Lewandowski that he was appearing in response to a subpoena, that he was under obligation to answer in full, and that, since he had never even been a White House employee, he had no right to claim privilege of any form. But then Lewandowski went on to refuse to answer, to repeatedly insult the members, and to constantly claim the nonprivilege privilege that has been the hallmark of every Trump staffer entering the House since January.
In response, Nadler did … nothing. Zip. Diddly. Also doo dah.
Republican members of the committee reveled in Nadler’s do-nothingness. They used their time with Lewandowski to talk about Hillary Clinton, the Steele dossier, and whatever they damn well pleased, resting on the knowledge that Lewandowski would give them loud agreement to whatever they said, and give Democrats nothing but silence and insults.
It’s possible that at some future point Jerry Nadler will sit down to draft up a stern shake of the finger in the form of a contempt resolution. Then he may take that resolution back to the committee a week or two later so Doug Collins can go through a tirade that includes references to old cartoons and Joseph Stalin. Maybe stomp around a little. After two hours of sitting quiet for insults on national television, Nadler may even call a vote to send a contempt citation to the whole House. And maybe it will get heard in a month or two. Maybe.
All of that put together will have 1/10,000th the impact that would have been generated had Nadler stood up in response to requests from both Swalwell and Rep. David Cicilline and simply found Lewandowski in contempt. Right then. Right there. Call the sergeant-at-arms, demand that Lewandowski answer the questions or find an appropriate place to shove him. Make it clear that the things Nadler said in his own opening remarks were more than just a bland recitation that he had no intention of following up.
And moving back to Berke, Nadler had genuinely exerted himself and pushed on committee rules to include the public questioning by staff as part of these hearings. That was done because it was clear to everyone that the five-minute rule and the back-and-forth nature of questioning by the representatives makes these sessions worthless for anything other than grandstanding. If the goal is to have Republican Rep. Ken Buck call the Democratic members of the committee “useful idiots,” then … great. Mission accomplished. If the goal was to learn anything from the witness, or to build a narrative that influences the public or the full House, the scope of the failure was damn near complete.
Take a look at the Washington Post article on the hearing, or Dana Milbank’s morning op-ed, or CNN’s top-of-the-page story on the hearing. None of them even mention Berke or anything that was learned in his questioning. After five hours of representatives who were more concerned about using those five minutes as an opportunity to get out a good one-liner and prove their base loyalty, the networks had all turned away well before Berke opened his briefcase. Even C-SPAN had shuffled the hearing over to C-SPAN 3 by that point. If you’re looking for C-SPAN 3 on most cable systems, don’t bother.
The combination of bad structure and a refusal to impose any consequences for lying or refusing to answer made Nadler, and the entire Democratic Party by extension, appear both weak and disorganized. That’s not just a shame, it’s a disaster—or at least a near disaster.
There may be other chances to get this right. But this was one for the history books in how to do it wrong.