WASHINGTON | Former top White House adviser Hope Hicks on Wednesday refused to answer questions related to her time in the White House in an interview with the House Judiciary Committee, dimming Democrats’ chances of obtaining new or substantive information about President Donald Trump as part of their investigation into obstruction of justice.
Frustrated Democrats taking breaks from the meeting said Hicks and her lawyer were following White House orders to stay quiet about her time there working for Trump. She was answering some questions about her time on Trump’s campaign, the lawmakers said.
“She’s objecting to stuff that’s already in the public record,” said California Rep. Karen Bass. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., called her answers “a farce.” California Rep. Ted Lieu tweeted about the interview, writing that Hicks refused to answer even innocuous questions such as whether she had previously testified before Congress and where her office was located in the White House.
Rep. Madeleine Dean, D-Pa., said she asked Hicks if she had been aware of any outreach from the Russians during the campaign. After Hicks responded no, Dean named apparent contacts, such as emails, some of which are mentioned in special counsel Robert Mueller’s report. Hicks said she hadn’t thought those contacts were “relevant.”
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said Hicks’ lawyers had asserted the White House’s principle that as one of Trump’s close advisers she is “absolutely immune” from talking about her time there because of separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches. Nadler said that principle is “ridiculous” and Democrats intend to “destroy” it in court.
Outside the interview, Nadler said the committee plans to take the administration to court on the immunity issue, and Hicks’ interview would be part of the litigation.
In a letter Tuesday to Nadler, White House counsel Pat Cipollone wrote that Trump had directed Hicks not to answer questions “relating to the time of her service as a senior adviser to the president.” The White House has similarly cited broad executive privilege with respect to many of the Democrats’ investigative demands, using the president’s power to withhold information to protect the confidentiality of the Oval Office decision-making process.
Republicans had a different perspective, saying she was cooperative and that the interview was a waste of time. The top Republican on the panel, Georgia Rep. Doug Collins, said they were “simply talking about things that are already out there in public or getting the same answers over and over.”
Hicks was a key witness for Mueller, delivering important information to the special counsel’s office about multiple episodes involving the president. Mueller wrote in his 448-page report released in April that there was not enough evidence to establish a criminal conspiracy between Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russia, but he said he could not exonerate Trump on obstruction of justice. The report examined several situations in which Trump attempted to influence or curtail Mueller’s investigation.
Democratic aides said they plan on asking Hicks about several of those episodes, including efforts to remove Mueller from the investigation, pressure on former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the firing of FBI Director James Comey. The aides spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss their plans for the closed-door meeting.
The aides said that lawmakers also plan to ask about Hicks’ knowledge of hush-money payments orchestrated by former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen to two women who claimed to have had affairs with Trump — the porn actress Stormy Daniels and model Karen McDougal. Trump has denied the allegations. Cohen is now serving three years in prison partly for campaign violations related to the payments.
One lawmaker who was in the room said they had asked about some, not all, of those matters by a lunchtime break, and that she would not answer many of those questions. The person said Hicks was answering questions about the campaign, and that lawmakers were asking about Trump’s ties to Russia. The person requested anonymity to discuss the closed-door interview.
As Hicks spoke to the lawmakers, Trump tweeted throughout the day. He said the interview was “extreme Presidential Harassment,” and wrote that Democrats “are very unhappy with the Mueller Report, so after almost 3 years, they want a Redo, or Do Over.”
He also tweeted that it was “so sad that the Democrats are putting wonderful Hope Hicks through hell.”
The interview marks the first time lawmakers are hearing from a person linked to Trump’s inner circle since the release of Mueller’s report. Obtaining the testimony Wednesday from Hicks, former White House communications director and a close and trusted former Trump aide, was a victory for the committee, given that Trump has broadly stonewalled their investigations and said he will fight “all of the subpoenas.” But given the White House orders, it was unclear how much new information Hicks would provide.
Testimony from witnesses such as Hicks is one step in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s methodical approach to investigating Trump. More than 60 lawmakers in her caucus — including around a dozen on the Judiciary Committee — have called for opening an impeachment inquiry, but she has said she wants committees to investigate first and come to a decision on impeachment later.
While Trump has continued to block their requests, Democrats have made some minor gains in recent weeks with Hicks’ appearance and the Justice Department’s agreeing to make some underlying evidence from Mueller’s report available to committee members.
The Judiciary panel wanted a higher-profile interview with Hicks, subpoenaing her for public testimony. But they agreed to the private interview after negotiations. A transcript of the session will be released in the coming days.
The committee has also subpoenaed Hicks for documents, but she has only partially complied. She agreed to provide some information from her work on Trump’s campaign, but none from her time at the White House because of the administration’s objections.