Hope Hicks, the former White House communications director and one of President Donald Trump’s closest aides, arrived on Capitol Hill Wednesday to be questioned behind closed doors before the House Judiciary committee as part of the committee’s ongoing investigation into potential obstruction of justice by the president.
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She did not answer when asked how she would respond to committee questions.
Shortly after Hicks arrived, the Democratic chairman, Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York, emerged to tell reporters that Hicks was “answering questions put to her” in the committee interview.
Later, while Hicks was still facing questions, other Democrats coming in and out of the room didn’t appear satisfied with her answers. While she was answering questions about her time on the campaign, they said, she was not answering any questions about her time at the White House.
Hicks again said nothing to reporters when she emerged from the room as the committee took a lunch break after about three hours of questioning.
Committee lawyers and members were prepared to question Hicks about her time in the White House and instances of potential obstruction detailed in special counsel Robert Mueller’s report as part of his probe of Russian meddling in the 2016 election. The committee announced Hicks’ agreement to appear last week and has said it plans to release transcripts from the hearing shortly after its conclusion.
On Tuesday afternoon, the White House sent a letter to Nadler that stated that Trump has instructed Hicks not to answer questions related to her time serving as a senior adviser in the White House, claiming she was “absolutely immune” from being compelled to testify” about her White House service.
“Because of this constitutional immunity and in order to protect the prerogatives of the Office of President, the President has directed Ms. Hicks not to answer questions before the Committee relating to the time of her service as a senior adviser to the President,” White House counsel Pat Cipollone wrote.
White House lawyers used the same argument to prevent former White House counsel Don McGahn from testifying on similar matters before the committee.
Nadler responded in a letter Tuesday afternoon, saying “I reject that assertion.”
“Questions will be posed to her and we will address privilege and other objections on question by question basis,” Nader said.
A member of the White House counsel’s office was in the room during her appearance Wednesday.
While the White House does not use the “immunity” argument as it relates to Hicks’ time on the campaign, Cipollone addressed the committee’s expressed interest in questioning Hicks about her time during the presidential transition.
“Much of Ms. Hicks’s work during this period involved discussions with the President-elect and his staff relating to the decisions the President-elect would be making once he assumed office,” Cipollone wrote. “Accordingly, her responses to specific questions about this period would likely implicate executive branch confidentiality interests concerning that decision-making process.”
Last week, the White House directed Hicks not to comply with document requests from late May for White House records issued by the committee related to the Trump campaign and transition, though she did turn over some materials related to the campaign.
In a letter to the panel, Robert Trout, a lawyer representing Hicks, detailed some of the campaign-related materials provided to the committee. Trout noted that Hicks had previously turned over similar records March 22.
Documents related to Hicks’ time in the White House and presidential transition were not turned over, Trout maintained, arguing the decision to release documents originating with the White House and transition “is not hers to make.”
Cipollone made a similar point in a previous letter to Nadler, writing that the documents “include White House records that remain legally protected from disclosure under longstanding constitutional principles because they implicate significant Executive Branch confidentiality interests and executive privilege. Because Ms. Talley and Ms. Hicks do not have the legal right to disclose the White House records to third parties, I would ask that the Committee direct any request for such records to the White House, the appropriate legal custodian.”
Annie Donaldson, McGahn’s former chief of staff, has also been subpoenaed to appear before the committee next Monday.
In a statement released last week, Nadler said his committee will attempt to resolve any privilege disagreements “while reserving our right to take any and all measures in response to unfounded privilege assertions.”
A House Judiciary Committee aide suggested the panel would not find it acceptable for Hicks not to answer any questions about her time in the White House.
Hicks, who served as a Trump Organization employee and the press secretary for the 2016 Trump presidential campaign before assuming her roles in the White House, was one of Trump’s closest confidantes on the campaign trail and in the early half of his presidency.
This will not be her first closed-door appearance before a House committee — she appeared before the House Intelligence Committee for an eight-hour, closed-door session in February 2018 and told the panel her work for Trump occasionally required her to tell “white lies.”
She also was asked about the controversial Trump Tower meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and a Russian lawyer in June 2016. She resigned from her position in the White House the following day.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters at the time that Hicks’ departure had little to do with the testimony.
Hicks, who is mentioned in the special counsel’s report dozens of times, also was a witness in Mueller’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia during the 2016 election, having sat for two days of closed-door interviews with the special counsel’s team.
The ranking member on the Judiciary Committee, GOP Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, told reporters members are learning nothing new from her testimony because it’s all laid out in the Mueller report. He accused Democrats of just wanted to re-litigate the report.
“She’s answering questions that she can and she’s been cooperative with this,” Collins said. He called the Hicks interview Wednesday a “press release” and a PR stunt by Democrats.