President Trump’s former communications director Hope Hicks was questioned behind closed doors Wednesday by members of the House Judiciary Committee as part of the panel’s review of obstruction allegations and Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report.
Less than an hour into the interview, some Democrats said Hicks – who is now the chief communications officer at the Fox Corporation – was following White House orders to stay quiet about her time as an aide to Trump.
“She’s objecting to stuff that’s already in the public record,” said California Democratic Rep. Karen Bass. “It’s pretty ridiculous.”
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., declined to comment on the substance of the interview so far, saying “all I’ll say is Ms. Hicks is answering questions put to her and the interview continues.”
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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.”
Cipollone said Hicks is “absolutely immune” from compelled testimony with respect to her service to the president because of the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches. 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.
Democrats say they disagree that Hicks’ answers are covered by such immunity or privilege, especially since she has already cooperated with Mueller.
Republicans on the committee, however, see the interview in a different light – arguing that Hicks’ testimony is consistent with what was already laid out in Mueller’s report and calling the interview a waste of time.
“The Democrats can try to re-litigate the Mueller investigation,” Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., said. “But they don’t have the resources and they’re simply just having dramatic readings.”
Collins added: “This is not something we need to be doing when we have a border crisis, when we have other things going on — this is just another press release for the Democrats.”
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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 was a victory for the committee, given that Trump has said he will fight “all of the subpoenas.” But given the White House orders, it is 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 days afterward.
The committee also subpoenaed Hicks for documents. 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.
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.
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Democratic aides said they planned 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.
The Democrats plan to use some of Hicks’ answers to those questions to inform a committee hearing with experts to review Mueller’s report on Thursday.
Fox News’ Caroline McKee and The Associated Press contributed to this report.