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WASHINGTON — Hope Hicks, a former aide to President Donald Trump, refused to answer questions Wednesday about her time working in the White House as she testified behind closed doors before the House Judiciary Committee, lawmakers said.
Hicks, 30, testified before the panel for about seven hours. A transcript of the session was expected to be released within 48 hours.
Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island, a member of the panel and of Democratic leadership, told reporters Wednesday as the hearing continued that Hicks was not answering questions about working in the White House, which he said was preventing Congress from doing its oversight work.
“She has answered some, and mostly she is hiding behind the facetious claim of complete immunity about anything to do with her service in the White House," he said.
“The president's lawyers are directing her not to answer any questions even as we are recounting stuff she told to the special counsel," Cicilline added. “This will be the beginning of what I presume will be litigation.”
Heading into his office amid Hicks's testimony in the afternoon, Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., told reporters his committee could "destroy" the White House doctrine of absolute immunity in court, but said he hadn’t decided yet if they will make Hicks the “test case.”
"Hope Hicks answered some questions. She gave us a lot of good information. The White House asserted so-called absolute immunity, which is ridiculous and which we’ll destroy in court," he said.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, briefly spoke to reporters Wednesday afternoon and said Hicks’s testimony related to her campaign era knowledge. “There is something there, there with Miss MacDougal and something there, there with Michael Cohen.” She also referenced learning about “tactics” used.
Jackson Lee was referring to Karen MacDougal, who claimed a long intimate relationship Donald Trump and had received payment from a tabloid not to discuss her story publicly. Trump has denied the affair.
Jackson Lee also said that the committee will proceed to seek testimony from former special counsel Robert Mueller and former White House counsel Don McGahn, calling Hicks “one peg on the board.”
The congresswoman, like many others Wednesday, declined to describe Hicks’s testimony in detail and deferred to the transcript, which was slated to made public within days.
From inside the hearing room earlier in the day, Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., another member of the committee, tweeted: "I am watching Obstruction of Justice in action, as @TheJusticeDept is objecting to everything that Hope Hicks wants to say during her tenure in the White House. The Administration's position is absurd & they will lose in court. What is the @realDonaldTrump Administration hiding?"
He told reporters outside the room that the White House was preventing Hicks from talking about anything related to her tenure there, though she was answering questions about her time on the campaign.
"Anything related to her tenure at the White House, absolutely," Lieu said when asked whether the White House had prevented Hicks from talking about anything. "Even something as simple as 'where was your office located?' 'Objection.' It’s ridiculous. There’s no such thing known as 'absolute immunity.'"
Asked about Hicks' demeanor, Lieu said: "I think she’s fine. I think she is basically relying on the Department of Justice to assert objections every single time it’s related to anything during her tenure in the White House, and again, there’s no such thing as absolute immunity."
"The White House is just making stuff up, and they’re not asserting executive privilege, which actually is a thing. They’re afraid to assert it," he added. "So we want to go to court, we’re going to win, and then we’re just going to make Hope Hicks come back again and actually answer the questions during her tenure in the White House."
In a letter sent to Nadler on Tuesday evening, ahead of Hicks's appearance, White House counsel Pat Cipollone asserted that the former Trump aide was not legally required to provide testimony regarding her time working in the White House.
“Ms. Hicks is absolutely immune from being compelled to testify before Congress with respect to matters occurring during her service as a senior adviser to the President,” he wrote.
Nadler, in a response late Tuesday night, said he rejected any assertion regarding blanket executive privilege, adding that after the panel posed questions to Hicks, “we will address privilege and other objections on a question by question basis.”
Technically, the legal basis on which the White House has instructed Hicks not to answer — “testimonial immunity” — is one that has been cited by presidents going back decades. The Department of Justice has argued it represents a separation of powers issue: Congress can’t compel the president to come answer its questions, it says, so it should not be able to compel his close advisers. (This does not extend to Cabinet departments, which are subject to congressional oversight.)
There is no appeals court or Supreme Court decision that has directly addressed the issue.
Trump slammed the proceedings throughout the day, dubbing them "extreme Presidential Harassment," and later tweeting a complaint that "DEMOCRAT CONGRESSIONAL HEARINGS ARE #RIGGED!"
"So sad that the Democrats are putting wonderful Hope Hicks through hell, for 3 years now, after total exoneration by Robert Mueller & the Mueller Report," he tweeted Wednesday afternoon. "They were unhappy with result so they want a Do Over. Very unfair & costly to her. Will it ever end?"
Her appearance marked the first time a former Trump aide had come in to answer questions before that panel as part of the Democrats’ obstruction of justice investigation. Democrats had planned to focus their questions on what they have said are five crimes of obstruction of justice established by the Mueller report against Trump, as well as campaign finance violations stemming from alleged election-year hush money payments.
Other issues Democrats had planned to question Hicks about included Trump’s conduct and attitude toward former national security adviser Michael Flynn, Trump’s reaction when then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation, and the firing of James Comey as FBI director, among others.
Hicks' testimony came after the Judiciary Committee issued a subpoena last month for her appearance. She previously served as White House communications director and the White House director of strategic communications after a stint as a senior aide on Trump's 2016 campaign.
The White House directed Hicks and another former White House aide this month not to hand over any documents to the House Judiciary Committee related to their time at the White House.