WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - Hope Hicks, once a close aide to US President Donald Trump, drew fire from Democrats on Wednesday (June 19) for not answering questions during a closed House Judiciary Committee session about whether her former boss broke the law.
White House lawyers asserted immunity for Hicks on matters involving her 14 months in the Trump administration. Lawmakers wanted to ask Hicks about six instances in which Democrats believe Trump may have broken the law during the 2016 presidential campaign and while in the White House.
Hicks was directed not to respond to questions as basic as the location of her White House office or material she already told Special Counsel Robert Mueller during his investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible obstruction by Trump, Democratic lawmakers told reporters.
"They make the objection, we say it's nonsense. But Hope Hicks is listening to what they're saying in terms of objections, so she doesn't answer," US Representative Ted Lieu said.
Lieu said Hicks answered questions about the campaign but did not elaborate.
Democratic lawmakers said White House lawyers did not claim executive privelege but said Hicks was immune from having to testify, an assertion committee chairman Jerrold Nadler rejected in a letter to White House lawyers on Tuesday.
Democrats said they may have to go to court to force Hicks to respond as the White House continues its strategy of not cooperating with investigations in the Democratic-led House of Representatives.
"This is the beginning of what will be, I presume, litigation," said Representative David Cicilline.
"It's not at all helpful. It's more obstruction by the White House," said US Representative Veronica Escobar, a Judiciary Democrat who called for impeachment proceedings against Trump to begin.
House Judiciary Republican Matt Gaetz said not much new emerged from the questioning. "It appears to be Democrats trying to relitigate the Mueller report," he said.
Hicks was Trump's campaign press secretary and his White House communications director until she left in March 2018 and later became chief communications officer and executive president for Fox Corporation, parent company of Fox News.
HUSH MONEY AND POTENTIAL OBSTRUCTION
Democrats on the committee wanted to hear from Hicks about alleged hush money payments made during the campaign to two women, including porn star Stormy Daniels, who say they had affairs with Trump. He has denied the affairs.
They also wanted Hicks to talk about five examples of potential obstruction of justice by Trump that are laid out in Mueller's report, as well as the president's efforts to impede the Mueller investigation.
Hicks was mentioned 183 times in Mueller's report.
Assertions during questioning of executive privilege - a legal principle sometimes cited by presidents to keep White House information under wraps - would block a key line of inquiry by the committee and could lead to a subsequent legal challenge.
Despite the closed setting, Democrats viewed Hicks'appearance as a breakthrough for their congressional investigation, which could trigger impeachment proceedings against the president if it unearths evidence of serious misconduct.
Democrats say her appearance could help undermine Trump's strategy of stonewalling congressional investigators by encouraging others to cooperate with them and by giving investigators the chance to challenge any executive privilege assertions, possibly in federal court.
Democrats want Hicks to testify about an effort by the president to mislead the public about a June 9, 2016, meeting at Trump Tower in New York, where the Mueller report said campaign officials, including the president's son Donald Trump Jr, met with Russians offering "dirt" on Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. A key question is whether Trump himself was aware of the meeting at the time.
Aides said Hicks also would be asked about alleged obstruction by Trump involving former White House Counsel Don McGahn, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, former FBI Director James Comey and former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
A transcript of her testimony, which will be released after the interview, will be featured at a Thursday hearing where the committee will examine an ABC News interview, in which Trump said he saw nothing wrong with accepting damaging information about a US political opponent from a foreign government, aides said.
The White House last month asserted executive privilege to block the release of Mueller's unredacted report and related evidence, such as investigative interviews. The committee and the Justice Department have since reached an agreement giving panel members access to more of the Mueller report and some underlying material from the investigation.
McGahn, a star witness in the Mueller report, could face legal action for defying a subpoena for his testimony and documents after the White House directed him not to cooperate with the Judiciary panel.
Mueller's 448-page report found insufficient evidence to establish that the Trump campaign engaged in a criminal conspiracy with Moscow, despite numerous contacts between the campaign and Russia. It also described numerous attempts by Trump to impede Mueller's investigation but stopped short of declaring that he committed a crime.