President Donald Trump’s former aide Hope Hicks refused to answer questions Wednesday about her time working in the White House as she testified behind closed doors before the House Judiciary Committee, lawmakers said.
Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., a member of the panel and of Democratic leadership, told reporters Wednesday that Hicks was not answering questions about working in the White House, which he said was preventing Congress from doing its oversight work.
“She has answered some and mostly she is hiding behind the facetious claim of complete immunity about anything to do with her service in the White House,” he said.
“The president’s lawyers are directing her not to answer any questions even as we are recounting stuff she told to the special counsel,” he added. “This will be the beginning of what I presume will be litigation.”
From inside the hearing room, Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., another member of the committee, tweeted, “I am watching Obstruction of Justice in action, as @TheJusticeDept is objecting to everything that Hope Hicks wants to say during her tenure in the White House. The Administration’s position is absurd & they will lose in court. What is the @realDonaldTrump Administration hiding?”
He told reporters outside the room that the White House was preventing Hicks from talking about anything related to her tenure there, though she was answering questions about her time on the campaign.
“Anything related to her tenure at the White House, absolutely,” Lieu said when asked whether the White House had prevented Hicks from talking about anything. “Even something as simple as ‘where was your office located?’ ‘Objection.’ It’s ridiculous. There’s no such thing known as ‘absolute immunity.'”
Asked about Hicks’ demeanor, Lieu said, “I think she’s fine, I think 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, and again, there’s no such thing as absolute immunity.”
“The White House is just making stuff up, and they’re not asserting executive privilege, which actually is a thing. They’re afraid to assert it,” he added. “So we wanna go to court, we’re gonna win, and then we’re just gonna make Hope Hicks come back again and actually answer the questions during her tenure in the White House.”
In a letter sent to Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., on Tuesday evening, White House counsel Pat Cipollone asserted that Hicks was not legally required to provide testimony regarding her time working in the White House.
“Ms. Hicks is absolutely immune from being compelled to testify before Congress with respect to matters occurring during her service as a senior adviser to the President,” he wrote.
Nadler dismissed those claims. “I reject that assertion” regarding blanket executive privilege, he said in a response released late Tuesday night, adding that after the panel poses questions to Hicks, “we will address privilege and other objections on a question by question basis.”
Technically, the legal basis on which the White House has instructed Hicks not to answer — “testimonial immunity” — is one that has been cited by presidents going back decades. The Department of Justice has argued it represents a separation of powers issue: Congress can’t compel the president to come answer its questions, it says, so it should not be able to compel his close advisers. (This does not extend to Cabinet departments, which are subject to congressional oversight.)
There is no appeals court or Supreme Court decision that has directly addressed the issue.
Trump slammed the proceedings, dubbing them “extreme Presidential Harassment,” and later tweeting a complaint that “DEMOCRAT CONGRESSIONAL HEARINGS ARE #RIGGED!”
Democrats had planned to focus their questions Wednesday on what they have said are five crimes of obstruction of justice established by the Mueller report against Trump, as well as campaign finance violations stemming from alleged election-year hush money payments.
Her appearance marked the first time a former Trump aide had come in to answer questions before that panel as part of the Democrats’ obstruction of justice investigation. A transcript of the interview will be released, though it may not appear for several days.
Other issues Democrats had planned to question Hicks about include Trump’s conduct and attitude toward former national security adviser Michael Flynn, Trump’s reaction when then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation, and the firing of James Comey as FBI director, among others.
Hicks’ testimony came after the Judiciary Committee issued a subpoena last month for her appearance. She previously served as White House communications director and the White House director of strategic communications after a stint as a senior aide on Trump’s 2016 campaign.
The White House directed Hicks and another former White House aide this month not to hand over any documents to the House Judiciary Committee related to their time at the White House.