Democrats erupted Wednesday at what they said was the White House’s repeated interference in their interview with Hope Hicks, a longtime confidant of President Donald Trump who was a central witness in special counsel Robert Mueller’s obstruction of justice probe.
Three House Judiciary Committee lawmakers exiting the closed-door interview said a White House lawyer repeatedly claimed Hicks had blanket immunity from discussing her time in the White House. They said she wouldn’t answer questions as basic as where she sat in the West Wing or whether she told the truth to Mueller.
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“It’s a farce,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), who said Hicks at one point tried to answer a question about an episode involving former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski only to be cut off by counsel.
“We’re watching obstruction of justice in action,” said Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.).
Lieu said the White House lawyers were “making crap up” to block Hicks from testifying. He said she did answer some questions about her time on the Trump campaign that provided new information but declined to characterize her comments.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) took a more forgiving tone, saying Hicks did answer some questions and said a transcript of her testimony released in the next few days would reveal what she said.
Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) said Hicks answered a couple questions about alleged hush payments Trump directed to women accusing him of extramarital affairs just before the 2016 election, but he said the issue hadn’t been fully probed.
Cicilline also said Hicks answered questions about campaign meetings in which Wikileaks was discussed but that lawmakers gleaned little new information.
He added that Hicks, in the first hour of her questioning, expressed no regret and did not admit any of her public statements during the campaign were false — despite clear evidence to the contrary.
Democrats, though, braced for a long day of fighting with the White House over executive privilege and claims by the White House that Hicks doesn’t have to answer questions about her time in the West Wing or on the post-election transition. Jayapal said White House lawyers repeatedly refused to formally invoke executive privilege despite advising Hicks not to answer many questions.
Jayapal said lawyers even objected to Hicks discussing episodes that occurred after she left the White House — and that Hicks went along with it.
“She is making a choice to follow along with all the claims of absolute immunity,” Jayapal said, adding, “Basically, she can say her name.”
Hicks’ name appears 184 times in Mueller’s blockbuster report, and the interview marks her first time before lawmakers since the report became public.
The closed-door hearing deprives Democrats of the high-drama, made-for-TV moment they have been seeking in order to beam Mueller’s damning findings into viewers’ living rooms. But it represents a symbolic victory in their effort to pierce Trump’s blockade of current and former White House officials from testifying in the Democrat-led obstruction of justice investigation.
Democratic aides previewing the interview said the committee intends to focus on five episodes of potential obstruction of justice by Trump, as well as separate allegations — derived from Mueller’s probe — that Trump directed hush money payments to two women who accused him of extramarital affairs in the weeks before the 2016 election. A transcript of the interview could be released within 48 hours, they say.
That Hicks is unlikely to discuss her tenure in the White House could prevent any dramatic revelations about potential obstruction, since Mueller’s two-year investigation occurred entirely during the Trump presidency. The White House has urged former officials to decline the Judiciary Committee’s demands for testimony and documents, claiming that they’re all subject to a broad claim of executive privilege. Democratic committee aides say lawmakers intend to force Trump to invoke executive privilege in writing if he intends to stop Hicks from answering questions — and even then the committee might contest some of his assertions as invalid.
Hicks’ attorney previously indicated she was prepared to provide documents to the committee related to her time on the campaign but not in the White House. But even if lawmakers are limited in their questioning, they may be able to make revealing inquiries about her recollection of her service on the Trump campaign, when Russia orchestrated a massive propaganda and hacking campaign to damage Hillary Clinton.
Mueller concluded that the Trump campaign welcomed that help and strategized about how to capitalize on it. Yet Mueller also found that he lacked sufficient evidence to charge any American with knowingly conspiring with the Russian effort.
Democrats will have the chance to ask Hicks questions about her interactions with Mueller, her views about the president’s actions since she left the White House and other areas that don’t implicate her White House service. The trip to Capitol Hill won’t be Hicks’ first time testifying on the Russia probe to Congress. She testified to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees in early 2018 about her time on the campaign and on the post-election transition team.
At the time, Democrats on the House panel were infuriated that Hicks wouldn’t discuss her White House tenure, and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), now the committee’s chairman, called on Republicans at the time to subpoena her and possibly initiate contempt proceedings.
But Hicks was more forthcoming with Mueller. Mueller’s report indicates his team interviewed Hicks at least three times — once on Dec. 7, 2017, once on Dec. 8, 2017 and once on March 13, 2018 — two weeks after her appearance before the House Intelligence Committee. Her testimony focused on firsthand details of Trump’s repeated efforts to constrain or end the Mueller investigation.
She described how after providing a false statement to reporters claiming there were no contacts between the Trump campaign and any foreign entities, she asked other senior campaign officials — Kellyanne Conway, Stephen Miller and possibly Jared Kushner and Steve Bannon — whether the statement was accurate. None of them pushed back, she said.
Hicks also provided evidence that Trump’s hostility toward the Russia probe stemmed from personal insecurities about whether Russian interference rendered his 2016 victory illegitimate. She also testified that President Barack Obama had warned Trump about security concerns regarding incoming national security adviser Mike Flynn’s contacts with Russia, a warning she said “sat with” Trump longer than she expected. Hicks also recalled Trump ordering aides to defend him after the backlash over his decision to fire FBI Director James Comey. And she provided details about Trump’s demand that his White House counsel, Don McGahn, falsely deny that Trump had asked him to fire Mueller.
But Hicks’ most significant testimony may have revolved around efforts by Trump to pressure Attorney General Jeff Sessions to constrain the Russia investigation. Hicks told Mueller’s team that Trump scolded Sessions in front of her for his decision to recuse from the Russia matter. She also recalled Trump discussing Sessions’ offer to resign with other advisers, shortly after Mueller’s appointment in May 2017.
Though Hicks provided voluminous details of her interactions with Trump and recollection of crucial moments in the Russia investigation, she’s notably silent on two pieces of Mueller’s findings that describe direct actions she took to advance the president’s efforts to influence the probe.
In one July 2017 episode, Mueller cites former campaign chairman Corey Lewandowski, who testified that Trump dictated a note to deliver to Sessions, urging him to constrain the Mueller probe and prevent the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election. Lewandowski said he asked Hicks to type up the handwritten dictation and retrieved it from her partway through his meeting with Trump. Hicks’ version of that interaction doesn’t appear in the report.
Similarly, Hicks’ testimony is missing from Mueller’s account of efforts by Trump to potentially influence Flynn from testifying against him, a month after Flynn decided to cooperate with the investigation. In a January 2018 interview, Flynn recalled that after his resignation, he received phone calls from White House chief of staff Reince Priebus and Hicks, “who said she wanted to relay on behalf of the president that the president hoped Flynn was OK.”
Hicks’ testimony about that call does not appear in the report. Her attorney, Robert Trout, declined to respond to multiple requests for comment on those gaps.
Republicans on the Judiciary Committee said the fact that Hicks is appearing at all is evidence that Democrats have been overzealous in their decisions to issue subpoenas and accuse the White House of blocking access to information.
“Ms. Hicks’ interview tomorrow further proves that the administration is not stonewalling Congress,” said the Judiciary Committee’s top Republican, Doug Collins of Georgia. “The White House has offered to negotiate with Democrats for documents that Ms. Hicks can’t provide, and the committee could probably have heard from her earlier if Democrats didn’t take a scorched-earth approach to pursuing information.”
Andrew Desiderio contributed to this report.