Hope Hicks, the former White House communications director, brought six lawyers with her when she testified before the House Judiciary Committee in a closed-door session earlier this week: three White House lawyers, one Justice Department attorney, and two private lawyers.
And according to a transcript of her testimony released Thursday, White House lawyers stopped Hicks from answering lawmakers’ questions at least 155 times, citing “absolute immunity.”
They said that immunity assertion applied to “anything about her knowledge of anything during the period of time in which she was employed in the White House.”
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler was noticeably frustrated with the White House’s stonewalling, saying at one point during the hearing, “With all due respect, that is absolute nonsense as a matter of law.”
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Throughout the hearing, Hicks was blocked from answering basic questions on seemingly insignificant details like where her office was located in the White House, and whether President Donald Trump ever spoke to her during lunch time.
At one point, a White House lawyer stopped Hicks from reading parts of the former special counsel Robert Mueller’s report out loud, even though the document is publicly available.
“You object even though this is recounted in the special counsel’s report?” Nadler asked.
“I object, Mr. Chairman,” said Michael Purpura, the deputy counsel to the president. “The question asked her to characterize whether it was accurate, which would then cause her to talk about things she witnessed and observed during her time as a close adviser to the president.”
Hicks is the first material witness connected to the former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election to testify before Congress following the release of Mueller’s report.
Hicks was a central figure in Mueller’s obstruction-of-justice case and has long been one of President Donald Trump’s closest confidantes. She was mentioned more than 180 times in Mueller’s report and interviewed with prosecutors at least three times.
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Mueller’s team declined to make a “traditional prosecutorial judgment” on whether Trump obstructed justice, citing a 1973 Office of Legal Counsel memo which said a sitting president cannot be indicted.
But prosecutors emphasized that their report “does not exonerate” the president and went on to lay out at least 11 instances of potential obstruction by Trump, indicating that it’s up to Congress to investigate further.
Following Hicks’ testimony on Wednesday, Democratic lawmakers expressed significant irritation toward the White House for blocking Hicks from answering so many questions.
Rep. Ted Deutch, a Democratic committee member, told Politico that Hicks didn’t say anything in the hearing without the explicit permission of the White House lawyer.
“She made clear she wouldn’t answer a single question about her time unless the White House counsel told her it was okay,” he said.
Indeed, Deutch was incredulous during the hearing when, at one point, White House lawyers stopped Hicks from discussing a dinner she had with Trump in April on the grounds that the president may claim executive privilege over the conversation in the future.
“You won’t allow the witness to answer because you’re reserving the right to assert privilege about a conversation at some point in the future?” Deutch asked the lawyers.
“That is correct,” Hicks responded.
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But the hearing wasn’t a total flop for lawmakers interested in getting information from Hicks.
Most notably, when asked about Trump’s comments in a recent ABC News interview, during which he said he would potentially entertain an offer of political dirt on an opponent from a foreign power, Hicks said she would not accept such an overture.
She added, however, that she would only contact the FBI if she “felt it was legitimate enough to have our law enforcement dedicate their time to it.”
Hicks also shared some of her thoughts on WikiLeaks’ release, during the 2016 election, of information that was damaging to then Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Hicks said she accepted the US intelligence community’s assessment that the Russian government was responsible for hacking the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign during the election. She added that when the Clinton emails were published online, her reaction was “not happiness, but a little bit of relief maybe that other campaigns had obstacles to face as well.”
She disputed the notion that the Trump campaign had a “coordinated strategy” to weaponize the Clinton dirt, saying instead that it was an effort “to take publicly available information and use that to show a differentiation” between Trump and Clinton.
Hicks also said she found it “odd” that Trump asked Corey Lewandowski, his former campaign manager, to get then Attorney General Jeff Sessions to reverse his recusal from overseeing the Russia investigation. Sessions recused himself after it surfaced that during his Senate confirmation hearing, he failed to disclose his contacts with Russian officials during the campaign.
Lewandowski was one of several associates and advisers who did not follow through on Trump’s directives to influence the Russia probe.
Hicks also told the committee that she had told “white lies” on Trump’s behalf but that she had “never been asked to lie about matters of substance or consequence.”