WASHINGTON – Democratic lawmakers accused President Donald Trump's former aide Hope Hicks of rejecting questions about her time in the White House during a marathon hearing on Wednesday.
While Democrats aimed to unearth new aspects of Hicks' role in the White House, which spanned some of the most controversial moments of Trump's presidency, both sides of the aisle seemed to agree that very little, if anything, was learned from the all-day testimony. But despite the roadblock, Democrats vowed that their fight was only beginning, one that would likely go to court, so key officials may testify before lawmakers.
Hicks, Trump’s former White House communication director and campaign spokeswoman, is the first senior administration official mentioned in special counsel Robert Mueller’s report to testify before Congress.
The House Judiciary Committee subpoenaed Hicks because of her proximity to Trump during several 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 Attorney General Jeff Sessions and 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 said he didn't have the option to charge Trump with obstruction of justice despite 10 episodes of potential illegalities listed in the report.
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Congressional Democrats on the committee said Hicks’ appearance amounted to her not complying with the subpoena. They claimed she did not answer questions about her time in the White House or the findings outlined in the Mueller report. Lawyers for the administration, who were at Hicks' side during her testimony, objected to question after question, claiming she was immune from answering anything related to her time in the White House, Democrats said.
But she did answer some questions about her time on the Trump campaign, and Democrats said every piece of information was helpful for their investigations into the president.
Hicks did not answer questions from reporters as she left the hearing after about eight hours testifying.
Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler said he was satisfied in "some ways" with Hicks' testimony but said the blanket objection to answering questions about her time in the White House would "not stand."
"She answered some of our questions. We learned considerable information," said Nadler, D-N.Y. "The White House pleaded a non-existent, absolute immunity and that will not stand."
Some Democrats said her testimony felt more like a roadblock that 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-Texas. “They’re not even allowing her to comment on what’s in a publicly available report, the Mueller report. It’s unbelievable.”
The next step for Democrats, some committee members said, is going to court and forcing Hicks and others to fully comply with subpoenas and answer questions, though Nadler did not say that was the next step for the committee.
Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., tweeted some of the questions that attorneys objected to, including where Hicks' office was and what the weather was like on her first day of work. He said he's 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 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.”
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, said Hicks was only "one peg on the board" and the committee needs testimony from Mueller and Don McGahn, the former White House counsel who defied a subpoena from the committee to appear.
Trump complained in a tweet that Democrats put Hicks "through hell, for 3 years now, after total exoneration by Robert Mueller."
So sad that the Democrats are putting wonderful Hope Hicks through hell, for 3 years now, after total exoneration by Robert Mueller & the Mueller Report. They were unhappy with result so they want a Do Over. Very unfair & costly to her. Will it ever end? Why aren’t they.......— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 19, 2019
Republicans on the committee agreed.
"It's unfortunate that Hope Hicks has been dragged down here and forced to go through this," said Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas. "I'm amazed that people would be willing to serve in any administration when they're harassed like this for just doing their jobs."
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 relitigate the Mueller investigation.”
Other Republicans said 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.
Hicks left the White House in March 2018 and is chief communication officer and executive vice president at Fox, the parent company of Fox News and other networks.
Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., said a transcript of her testimony will be made public within the next two days.
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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Hicks' appearance stands in contrast to McGahn, 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 negotiated a compromise to receive documents.
The full House 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 meeting June 9, 2016, at Trump Tower, when Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner met with Russians offering damaging information about Democratic rival Hillary Clinton. On June 28, 2017, at Kushner's lawyer's office, Hicks reviewed emails setting up the meeting. She said they looked “really bad” and that media 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.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'That will not stand': Democrats plan next steps after ex-Trump aide Hope Hicks didn't answer key questions in testimony