The White House is asserting immunity for President Donald Trump’s long-time confidant Hope Hicks from testifying in the House Judiciary Committee about her time at the White House, setting up a showdown with Democrats when Hicks appears behind closed doors on Wednesday.
But Democrats’ on the House Judiciary Committee are also planning to press Hicks on events that occurred before Trump took office, including her knowledge of the hush-money scheme to silence Trump’s extramarital affairs in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, according to a committee aide.
The anticipated line of questioning signals renewed interest on Capitol Hill over the President being implicated in felonies committed by former Trump fixer Michael Cohen, after the panel has been mostly focused until now over the allegations detailed in special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on obstruction of justice.
Hicks is the first member of Trump’s inner circle to appear before the House Judiciary Committee, which is undertaking its own investigation into possible obstruction of justice, corruption and abuse of power as House Democrats wrestle with whether to start an impeachment inquiry. But White House counsel Pat Cipollone wrote to the committee Tuesday ahead of Hick’s appearance to argue that she is “absolutely immune” from being compelled to answer questions about her time as a senior adviser to the President.
“Because of this constitutional immunity, and in order to protect the prerogatives of the Office of President, the President has directed Ms. Hicks not to answer questions before the Committee relating to the time of her services as a senior adviser to the President,” Cipollone wrote, adding that Hicks previously testified before the House and Senate Intelligence committees under similar circumstances.
The administration’s position that she does not need to answer questions about her time in the administration is unlikely to satisfy the committee’s Democrats, who could try to go to court to force her to answer their questions.
At Wednesday’s closed hearing, Hicks is expected to face questions from Democrats about at least five episodes detailed in the Mueller report that she had knowledge of or had witnessed first-hand, the aide said.
In addition, Democrats plan to ask Hicks: Trump’s conduct surrounding his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn; Trump’s demands to ask the then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to un-recuse himself from overseeing the Mueller probe; the President’s actions surrounding the firing of then-FBI Director James Comey; Trump’s efforts to dismiss Mueller from overseeing the probe; and allegations the President sought to curtail the Mueller probe.
Moreover, they plan to press Hicks about her involvement in issuing misleading statements in 2017 after the Trump Tower meeting with Russians was revealed in press accounts. Plus, they have questions about then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who is now in jail, according to the aide.
While a White House official will be in the room during her testimony, Democrats say that they will not accept assertions of executive privilege over her entire time while serving as the White House communications director, arguing it won’t hold up in court because she discussed these matters with the special counsel. If executive privilege is invoked, they will engage in an “on-the-spot” negotiation over whether she can answer a particular question.
The House Judiciary Committee is fighting a similar battle with former White House counsel Don McGahn, who did not appear under subpoena after the White House directed him not to answer questions about his time in the administration with a similar claim of immunity from congressional testimony. The House voted earlier this month to authorize the committee to go to court to enforce McGahn’s subpoena.
Democrats would not say yet if they would take Hicks to court if she declines to answer certain questions, but said the committee is not afraid to assert its authority to get their questions answered.
It’s not clear whether Hicks will also refuse to answer questions about the transition period between the election and Trump’s inauguration. Cipollone argued in the letter that Hicks’ responses “would likely implicate executive branch confidentiality interests concerning” the President’s decision-making once he took office.
A transcript of the interview will be released – potentially within 48 hours – but Democrats plan to discuss what they learn at a Thursday public hearing about lessons learned from the Mueller report, the aide said.