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Hope Hicks refused to answer 155 questions during House testimony

POLITICO logo POLITICO 6/21/2019 By Andrew Desiderio and Kyle Cheney
a person standing in front of a mirror posing for the camera: Democrats were livid Wednesday about Hope Hicks' stonewalling but hoped to glean information about her time on the Trump campaign in 2016. © J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo Democrats were livid Wednesday about Hope Hicks' stonewalling but hoped to glean information about her time on the Trump campaign in 2016.

Hope Hicks refused to answer 155 questions from House Democrats on Wednesday about her tenure as communications director in the Trump White House, according to a transcript of her closed-door testimony released Thursday.

The longtime confidante of President Donald Trump spent nearly eight hours clinging closely to White House attorneys' demands that she refuse to answer every question about her time in the White House, as Democrats ticked through a lengthy, detailed and at times monotonous recitation of questions they knew the answer to: “Objection.”

The House Judiciary Committee’s interview yielded virtually no new information about Hicks’ role in the Trump campaign, and none at all about her testimony to former special counsel Robert Mueller centering on Trump's repeated attempts to constrain or thwart Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

The transcript — and the dozens of objections from White House lawyers — further documents the White House’s efforts to prevent witnesses from complying with House Democrats’ investigations, as part of its assertions that Hicks and other former aides have “absolute immunity” from testifying.

During Wednesday’s testimony, Hicks refused to answer several questions about the president’s actions, her conversations with him and her discussions even with officials outside the White House, according to the transcript. She did not answer questions about her testimony to Mueller, either — a fact that enraged Democrats who argued that she had no legal basis to refuse to discuss events that she already described in detail to the special counsel.

Most notably, the White House objected to lawmakers’ questions about Trump’s attempts to constrain the special counsel’s investigation, including his directives to then-White House Counsel Don McGahn to fire Mueller.

Hicks also refused to answer basic questions such as where her desk was located in the White House, and whether there was a war between Israel and Egypt during her tenure.

Two White House lawyers, Michael Purpura and Patrick Philbin, objected to lawmakers’ and committee staffers’ questions every time the inquiry touched on Hicks’ service in the White House and during the presidential transition period, which pre-dates Trump’s presidency.

Purpura told Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) that the White House was not formally asserting executive privilege to block Hicks’ testimony; he only stated the White House’s view that Hicks “may not be compelled to speak about events that occurred during her service as a senior adviser to the president.”

Hicks abided by Purpura’s demands, telling Nadler: “As a former senior adviser to the president, I’m following the instructions from the White House.” Hicks’ attorney, Robert Trout, said his client was “simply following the guidance of the White House.”

At one point, Nadler challenged those claims of “absolute immunity,” telling Purpura: “With all due respect, that is absolute nonsense as a matter of law.”

At times, Hicks grew snarky with Democratic staff as they grilled her, joking that “contrary to popular belief,” she doesn’t speak Russian, and dismissing a question about the value of a leaked Democratic opposition research file by noting, “We have a thing called Google now.”

Hicks also volunteered that she believed there was “no collusion” between the Trump campaign and Russia. But when asked what she makes of the president saying “no obstruction occurred,” she said: “I’m here to talk about the campaign.”

Hicks was permitted by White House lawyers to answer innocuous questions such as where she usually ate her lunch and whether it was sunny or cloudy on her first day on the job. She was also permitted to discuss her April dinner with Trump, during which she said they were “reminiscing about events from the campaign, rallies, things like that.” She said she did not discuss her congressional testimony with the president, but Philbin objected when Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) asked her if they discussed Trump’s comments about the congressional investigations, which Trump has railed against.

Nadler has not specified whether he will seek a court order that would force Hicks to answer questions that involve her White House tenure and her testimony to the special counsel.

Democrats were livid Wednesday about the stonewalling, but hoped to glean information about her time on the Trump campaign in 2016, when the claims of immunity did not apply. But the transcript revealed little information that was not previously known.

Hicks said she had no knowledge of Trump’s arrangement with his former attorney and fixer, Michael Cohen, to buy the silence of various women who alleged that they had affairs with Trump. Cohen is currently serving a three-year sentence for the scheme — which prosecutors said violated campaign-finance laws — and for lying to Congress about the timing of the failed negotiations surrounding the construction of a Trump Tower in Moscow.

Hicks appeared to show that she remains loyal to Trump, often refusing to break with the president’s views on how he conducted his campaign. For example, she defended the Trump campaign's use of hacked Democratic National Committee emails and other materials at rallies and on social media, saying it was simply done to “show a differentiation” between Trump and Hillary Clinton.

Hicks said she felt “relief” when WikiLeaks released those hacked materials, telling the committee she was relieved to know “that other campaigns had obstacles to face as well.”

But Hicks appeared to break with Trump’s willingness to accept foreign dirt on his political rivals, saying that she would call the FBI “if I felt it was legitimate enough to have our law enforcement dedicate their time to it.” She also said she “would not” advise anyone to accept information offered from a foreign government during a U.S. election campaign.

The transcript shows that Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, slammed Democrats for discussing Hicks’ interview while it was ongoing. In particular, he called out Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), who spoke with reporters and was using his Twitter account to decry the White House’s objections.

After the transcript was released, Collins said “we’ve learned nothing new from a witness who has been cooperating with this committee for months.”

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