House Democrats grill Hope Hicks behind closed doors after White House asserts immunity

Hicks' appearance marks the first time a former Trump aide has testified before the Judiciary panel in its probe

Published June 19, 2019 9:59AM (EDT)

Former White House communications director Hope Hicks arrives for closed-door interview with the House Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, June 19, 2019. (AP/Andrew Harnik)
Former White House communications director Hope Hicks arrives for closed-door interview with the House Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, June 19, 2019. (AP/Andrew Harnik)

Former White House communications director Hope Hicks arrived on Capitol Hill Wednesday to testify before the House Judiciary Committee behind closed doors, marking the first time a former member of President Donald Trump's inner circle faced questions in Congress as part of a host of congressional investigations into the president and his administration.

It is unknown Hicks will answer many of the committee's questions related to her time at the White House, however. The White House on Tuesday sent the House panel a letter arguing that Hicks was "absolutely immune" from testifying about her 14 months at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

"Because of this constitutional immunity, and in order to protect the prerogatives of the Office of the President, the president has directed Ms. Hicks not to answer questions before the committee relating to the time of her service as a senior adviser to the president," White House counsel Pat Cipollone wrote in a letter to House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler.

Cipollone also noted that the White House may attempt to block Hicks from answering questions about her time on the presidential transition team, because of potential executive privilege concerns.

"Much of Ms. Hicks' work during this period involved discussions with the president-elect and his staff relating to the decisions the president-elect would be making once he assumed office," Cipollone wrote. "Accordingly, her responses to specific questions about this period would likely implicate executive branch confidentiality interests concerning that decision-making process."

The House Judiciary Committee has struggled to secure documents and testimony from key witnesses amid a feud with the White House. The administration's efforts to limit Hicks' testimony is likely to further anger Democrats who have accused Trump and his administration of stonewalling or flat-out ignoring their requests for documents and information related to their oversight efforts. The move also suggests Nadler could go to court to try to enforce the subpoena for Hicks' testimony and documents if the panel is unsatisfied with her testimony ⁠— just as the committee says it will do in order to compel the testimony of former White House counsel Don McGahn.

The White House earlier this month directed Hicks not to comply with the panel's request for documents related to her time working in the Trump administration. Hicks has provided some records to the committee related to her time working for the Trump campaign.

Hicks, who Trump affectionately calls "Hopey," enjoyed a close relationship with the president and his family. (Her first job in 2011 was at Hiltzik Strategies, a communications consulting firm who represented the fashion line of Ivanka Trump, the president's eldest daughter, which sparked her relationship with the Trump family.) She often spent hours in the Oval Office and appeared to occupy a different place in Trump's orbit than other former staffers. The president has repeatedly lauded the former West Wing aide, who became a top press adviser for his 2016 campaign and during the first year-plus of his White House tenure before leaving to take a job at Fox Corporation, the media company which spun off from 21st Century Fox's merger with the Walt Disney Company.

Hicks' coziness with Trump made her a key witness in the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, which was led by the former special counsel Robert Mueller. She was interviewed last year for roughly nine hours by Mueller and the House Intelligence Committee behind closed-doors, and her exit from the White House came within 48 hours of her admitting to the committee that she had told "white lies" on the president's behalf.

Hicks is expected to be accompanied Wednesday by at least one White House lawyer "in order to preserve the president's ability to assert executive privilege" over information related to her tenure, Cipollone said.

Nadler said a transcript of Hicks' interview will be made public.

By Shira Tarlo

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