Washington • Former top White House adviser Hope Hicks is refusing to answer questions related to her time in the White House in an interview with the House Judiciary Committee, according to several frustrated Democrats who have been in the meeting.
Less than an hour into the interview, part of the panel’s investigation into obstruction of justice and special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, Democrats said she was following White House orders to stay quiet about her time as an aide to President Donald Trump.
"She's objecting to stuff that's already in the public record," said California Rep. Karen Bass. "It's pretty ridiculous."
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., called it "a farce."
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., declined to comment on the substance of the interview so far, saying "all I'll say is Ms. Hicks is answering questions put to her and the interview continues."
In a letter Tuesday to Nadler, White House counsel Pat Cipollone wrote that Trump had directed Hicks not to answer questions "relating to the time of her service as a senior adviser to the president."
Cipollone said Hicks, as one of Trump's former senior advisers, is "absolutely immune" from compelled testimony with respect to her service to the president because of the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches. The White House has similarly cited broad executive privilege with respect to many of the Democrats' investigative demands, using the president's power to withhold information to protect the confidentiality of the Oval Office decision-making process.
Democrats say they disagree that Hicks' answers are covered by such immunity or privilege, especially since she has already cooperated with Mueller.
Jayapal said that at one point Hicks started to answer a question, and the lawyers jumped in and said "we're starting executive."
"Basically, she can say her name," Jayapal said.
As Hicks spoke to the lawmakers, Trump tweeted that the investigation is "extreme Presidential Harassment." He wrote that Democrats "are very unhappy with the Mueller Report, so after almost 3 years, they want a Redo, or Do Over."
Hicks is expected to answer some questions about her time on Trump's campaign, but it was unclear how cooperative she will be. Jayapal said she told lawmakers that she would tell the truth.
The interview marks the first time lawmakers are hearing from a person linked to Trump's inner circle since the release of Mueller's report. Obtaining the testimony Wednesday from Hicks, former White House communications director and a close and trusted former Trump aide, was a victory for the committee, given that Trump has broadly stonewalled their investigations and said he will fight "all of the subpoenas." But given the White House orders, it is unclear how much new information Hicks will provide.
Testimony from witnesses such as Hicks is one step in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's methodical approach to investigating Trump. More than 60 lawmakers in her caucus — including around a dozen on the Judiciary Committee — have called for opening an impeachment inquiry, but she has said she wants committees to investigate first and come to a decision on impeachment later.
While Trump has continued to block their requests, Democrats have made some minor gains in recent weeks with Hicks' appearance and the Justice Department's agreeing to make some underlying evidence from Mueller's report available to committee members.
The Judiciary panel wanted a higher-profile interview with Hicks, subpoenaing her for public testimony. But they agreed to the private interview after negotiations. A transcript of the session will be released in the days afterward.
The committee has also subpoenaed Hicks for documents, but she has only partially complied. She agreed to provide some information from her work on Trump's campaign, but none from her time at the White House because of the administration's objections.
Hicks was a key witness for Mueller, delivering important information to the special counsel's office about multiple episodes involving the president. Mueller wrote in his 448-page report released in April that there was not enough evidence to establish a criminal conspiracy between Trump's 2016 campaign and Russia, but he said he could not exonerate Trump on obstruction of justice. The report examined several situations in which Trump attempted to influence or curtail Mueller's investigation.
Democratic aides said they plan on asking Hicks about several of those episodes, including efforts to remove Mueller from the investigation, pressure on former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the firing of FBI Director James Comey. The aides spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss their plans for the closed-door meeting.
The aides said that lawmakers also plan to ask about Hicks' knowledge of hush-money payments orchestrated by former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen to two women who claimed to have had affairs with Trump — the porn actress Stormy Daniels and model Karen McDougal. Trump has denied the allegations. Cohen is now serving three years in prison partly for campaign violations related to the payments.
The Democrats plan to use some of Hicks' answers to those questions to inform a committee hearing with experts to review Mueller's report on Thursday.
Republicans have strongly criticized the investigations and say they are unnecessary after Mueller spent two years reviewing the same material and talking to the same witnesses. Hicks has also been interviewed by the House and Senate intelligence committees more than a year ago as they investigated Russian election interference.
Georgia Rep. Doug Collins, top Republican on the committee, said Hicks' appearance proves that Trump is not stonewalling Congress. And he said they could have probably heard from her sooner if they hadn't taken "a scorched-earth approach to pursuing information" with subpoenas.
Associated Press writers Padmananda Rama, Laurie Kellman and Eric Tucker contributed to this report.