Democrats accuse ex-Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks of not answering questions in congressional testimony

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Democratic members of Congress accused President Trump’s former spokeswoman Hope Hicks of pushing back on their inquiries during closed testimony. USA TODAY

WASHINGTON – Democratic members of Congress accused President Donald Trump’s former spokeswoman Hope Hicks of pushing back on their inquiries during closed testimony Wednesday.

Hicks, Trump’s former White House communications director and campaign spokeswoman, is the first senior administration official mentioned in former special counsel Robert Mueller’s report to testify before Congress.

The House Judiciary Committee subpoenaed Hicks because of her proximity to Trump during several key episodes that Mueller’s report described as attempts to thwart the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

The incidents include Trump helping draft the explanation about a Trump Tower meeting between top campaign officials and Russians, and his firing of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and former FBI Director James Comey.

Mueller’s report found no conspiracy between Trump’s campaign and Russia, despite repeated foreign attempts to influence the election on Trump’s behalf. Mueller made no decision on whether to charge Trump with obstruction of justice despite 10 episodes of potential illegalities listed in the report.

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Hicks exited the committee room shortly after noon and did not answer questions from reporters.

A number of congressional Democrats on the committee say Hicks’ appearance amounted to her not complying with the subpoena. They claim she did not answer questions about her time in the White House or the findings outlined in the Mueller report. At every turn, lawyers for the administration object to questions and claim she is immune from answering anything related to her time in the White House, Democrats said.

She did, however, answer questions about her time on the Trump campaign.

Some Democrats said the hearing only pushed them further down the path toward impeachment proceedings.

“This is an obstruction of Congress’ ability to do our job and uphold our oath. It’s unacceptable. We have to begin an inquiry soon,” said Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Tex. “They’re not even allowing her to comment on what’s in a publicly available report, the Mueller report. It’s unbelievable.” 

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The former communications director for President Donald Trump has arrived to talk to House lawmakers,/ AP

The next step for Democrats, they say, is going to court and forcing Hicks and others to fully comply with subpoenas and answer questions asked by the committee.

Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., said they are ready for a court battle.

“She is basically relying on the Department of Justice to assert objections every single time it’s related to anything during her tenure in the White House,” he said. “There is no such thing as absolute immunity. The White House is just making stuff up.”

Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., said the process as a whole has been “frustrating,” saying Wednesday’s hearing amounted to another witness failing to comply.

“We have more lawlessness when it comes to witnesses refusing to testify, it’s frustrating,” said Swalwell, who is running for the Democratic nomination for the White House. “All this does is just take us back to the court and just waste the taxpayer’s dollars.”

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Rep. Doug Collins, the top Republican on the committee, said the hearing was a waste of time, an effort by Democrats to just redo the work of Mueller and his team. 

“There’s nothing new here,” said Collins, R-Ga. “Democrats continue to try to re-litigate the Mueller investigation.”

Other Republicans agreed, saying there are other priorities that the committee should be investigating and holding hearings on. Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, questioned why House Democrats believed they would learn anything new that Mueller’s team didn’t already outline.

“I don’t know why we’re on a path to try and interview all of the witnesses that Bob Mueller has already interviewed,” he said, adding that the hearing was a futile effort that wasted time.

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Hicks, who left the White House in March 2018 and is now chief communications officer and executive vice president at Fox Corp., the parent company of Fox News and other networks, agreed to appear before the Judiciary Committee for a transcribed interview behind closed doors. Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., said a transcript will be made public.

Pat Cipollone, White House counsel, said in a letter Tuesday to Nadler that Hicks was immune from congressional subpoena for testimony about her work as a senior adviser to the president. Cipollone said one of his staffers would attend the interview to preserve the confidentiality of her work for Trump during the administration and even during the period between the election and inauguration because that work related to decisions Trump would make in office.

Nadler has dismissed claims of executive privilege or immunity for Trump administration witnesses by arguing that the president waived immunity by allowing top aides to speak with Mueller’s team.

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“Ms. Hicks understands that the committee will be free to pose questions as it sees fit, including about her time on the Trump campaign and her time in the White House,” Nadler said. “Should there be a privilege or other objection regarding any question, we will attempt to resolve any disagreement while reserving our right to take any and all measures in response to unfounded privilege assertions.”

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Hicks’ appearance stands in contrast to Don McGahn, former White House counsel, who defied the committee’s subpoena. McGahn cited administration reservations that his testimony is protected by executive privilege, to ensure that presidents get candid advice from aides.

Attorney General William Barr, who redacted portions of the Mueller report dealing with grand-jury testimony and evidence in pending cases, also defied a committee subpoena to provide Congress the full Mueller report and millions of pages of underlying evidence. The committee found him in contempt, but later negotiated a compromise to receive key documents.

The full House has authorized litigation to enforce the subpoenas against Barr and McGahn.

Hicks’ name appears more than 180 times in the Mueller report’s text and footnotes. She described meetings and dealing with the aftermath of incidents, including:

  • Trump helping draft a response to media questions about the June 9, 2016, meeting at Trump Tower, when Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner met with Russians offering damaging information about Democratic rival Hillary Clinton. Hicks reviewed emails setting up the meeting on June 28, 2017, at Kushner’s lawyer’s office. She said they looked “really bad” and that press coverage would be “massive” when the story broke, the report said. During a foreign trip, Trump helped draft a statement July 8, 2017, for his son to provide The New York Times that said the meeting was “primarily” about adoptions and didn’t mention disparaging information about Clinton.
  • Sessions recusing himself from the Russia inquiry because he worked on Trump’s campaign. Trump scolded Sessions in Hicks’ presence. Trump, who was “extremely upset” about Mueller’s appointment in May 2017, told Sessions he should resign. “Hicks said she had only seen the president like that one other time, after the Access Hollywood tape came out during the campaign,” the report said, referring to a televised recording of Trump saying he grabbed women’s genitals. Trump pocketed Sessions’ resignation letter for a year and a half, but fired him the day after the midterm election in November 2018.
  • Trump telling Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak on May 10, 2017, in the Oval Office that he fired Comey. “He was crazy, a real nut job,” Trump told the Russians, according to the report. “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off… I’m not under investigation.” When Hicks told Trump about news stories about the meeting, Trump didn’t look concerned and said Comey “is crazy,” the report said.

More about Hope Hicks and congressional investigations of President Trump:

Congress and White House fight over subpoenas for former aides Hope Hicks and Annie Donaldson

House votes to ease approval for wide-ranging lawsuits to gather evidence about President Trump

White House says Congress has no ‘legitimate role’ in investigating Trump, rejects document demands

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