Democrats interview former longtime Trump aide Hope Hicks

WASHINGTON (AP) — Former top White House adviser Hope Hicks is refusing to answer questions related to her time in the White House in an interview with the House Judiciary Committee, according to several frustrated Democrats who have been in the meeting.

Less than an hour into the interview, part of the panel's investigation into obstruction of justice and special counsel Robert Mueller's report, Democrats said she was following White House orders to stay quiet about her time as an aide to President Donald Trump.

SEE ALSO: House to enforce subpoenas on Trump advisers who defy them

"She's objecting to stuff that's already in the public record," said California Rep. Karen Bass. "It's pretty ridiculous."

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., called it "a farce."

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., declined to comment on the substance of the interview so far, saying "all I'll say is Ms. Hicks is answering questions put to her and the interview continues."

In a letter Tuesday to Nadler, White House counsel Pat Cipollone wrote that Trump had directed Hicks not to answer questions "relating to the time of her service as a senior adviser to the president."

Cipollone said Hicks, as one of Trump's former senior advisers, is "absolutely immune" from compelled testimony with respect to her service to the president because of the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches. The White House has similarly cited broad executive privilege with respect to many of the Democrats' investigative demands, using the president's power to withhold information to protect the confidentiality of the Oval Office decision-making process.

Democrats say they disagree that Hicks' answers are covered by such immunity or privilege, especially since she has already cooperated with Mueller.

RELATED: Hicks attends meeting with House Intelligence Committee 

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White House Communications Director Hope Hicks leaves after attending the House Intelligence Committee closed door meeting at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., February 27, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 27: White House Communications Director and presidential advisor Hope Hicks (L) arrives at the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center February 27, 2018 in Washington, DC. Hicks is scheduled to testify behind closed doors to the House Intelligence Committee in its ongoing investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 election. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
White House Communications Director Hope Hicks (R) leaves the U.S. Capitol with her lawyer Robert Trout after attending the House Intelligence Committee closed door meeting in Washington, U.S., February 27, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis
White House Communications Director Hope Hicks leaves the U.S. Capitol after attending the House Intelligence Committee closed door meeting in Washington, U.S., February 27, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis
White House Communications Director Hope Hicks leaves the U.S. Capitol after attending the House Intelligence Committee closed door meeting in Washington, U.S., February 27, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis
White House Communications Director Hope Hicks leaves after attending the House Intelligence Committee closed door meeting at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., February 27, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 27: White House Communications Director and presidential advisor Hope Hicks (L) arrives at the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center February 27, 2018 in Washington, DC. Hicks is scheduled to testify behind closed doors to the House Intelligence Committee in its ongoing investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 election. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
White House Communications Director Hope Hicks leaves after attending the House Intelligence Committee closed door meeting at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., February 27, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 27: White House Communications Director and presidential advisor Hope Hicks (L) arrives at the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center February 27, 2018 in Washington, DC. Hicks is scheduled to testify behind closed doors to the House Intelligence Committee in its ongoing investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 election. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
White House Communications Director Hope Hicks warns a camera man away from tripping as she leaves the U.S. Capitol after attending the House Intelligence Committee closed door meeting in Washington, U.S., February 27, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 27: White House Communications Director and presidential advisor Hope Hicks arrives at the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center February 27, 2018 in Washington, DC. Hicks is scheduled to testify behind closed doors to the House Intelligence Committee in its ongoing investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 election. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
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Jayapal said that at one point Hicks started to answer a question, and the lawyers jumped in and said "we're starting executive."

"Basically, she can say her name," Jayapal said.

As Hicks spoke to the lawmakers, Trump tweeted that the investigation is "extreme Presidential Harassment." He wrote that Democrats "are very unhappy with the Mueller Report, so after almost 3 years, they want a Redo, or Do Over."

Hicks is expected to answer some questions about her time on Trump's campaign, but it was unclear how cooperative she will be. Jayapal said she told lawmakers that she would tell the truth.

The interview marks the first time lawmakers are hearing from a person linked to Trump's inner circle since the release of Mueller's report. Obtaining the testimony Wednesday from Hicks, former White House communications director and a close and trusted former Trump aide, was a victory for the committee, given that Trump has broadly stonewalled their investigations and said he will fight "all of the subpoenas." But given the White House orders, it is unclear how much new information Hicks will provide.

Testimony from witnesses such as Hicks is one step in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's methodical approach to investigating Trump. More than 60 lawmakers in her caucus — including around a dozen on the Judiciary Committee — have called for opening an impeachment inquiry, but she has said she wants committees to investigate first and come to a decision on impeachment later.

SEE ALSO: With Hope Hicks interview, Dems breach Trump's inner circle

While Trump has continued to block their requests, Democrats have made some minor gains in recent weeks with Hicks' appearance and the Justice Department's agreeing to make some underlying evidence from Mueller's report available to committee members.

The Judiciary panel wanted a higher-profile interview with Hicks, subpoenaing her for public testimony. But they agreed to the private interview after negotiations. A transcript of the session will be released in the days afterward.

The committee has also subpoenaed Hicks for documents, but she has only partially complied. She agreed to provide some information from her work on Trump's campaign, but none from her time at the White House because of the administration's objections.

Hicks was a key witness for Mueller, delivering important information to the special counsel's office about multiple episodes involving the president. Mueller wrote in his 448-page report released in April that there was not enough evidence to establish a criminal conspiracy between Trump's 2016 campaign and Russia, but he said he could not exonerate Trump on obstruction of justice. The report examined several situations in which Trump attempted to influence or curtail Mueller's investigation.

Democratic aides said they plan on asking Hicks about several of those episodes, including efforts to remove Mueller from the investigation, pressure on former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the firing of FBI Director James Comey. The aides spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss their plans for the closed-door meeting.

The aides said that lawmakers also plan to ask about Hicks' knowledge of hush-money payments orchestrated by former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen to two women who claimed to have had affairs with Trump — the porn actress Stormy Daniels and model Karen McDougal. Trump has denied the allegations. Cohen is now serving three years in prison partly for campaign violations related to the payments.

The Democrats plan to use some of Hicks' answers to those questions to inform a committee hearing with experts to review Mueller's report on Thursday.

Republicans have strongly criticized the investigations and say they are unnecessary after Mueller spent two years reviewing the same material and talking to the same witnesses. Hicks has also been interviewed by the House and Senate intelligence committees more than a year ago as they investigated Russian election interference.

Georgia Rep. Doug Collins, top Republican on the committee, said Hicks' appearance proves that Trump is not stonewalling Congress. And he said they could have probably heard from her sooner if they hadn't taken "a scorched-earth approach to pursuing information" with subpoenas.

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Hicks and her sister, Mary Grace, were successful teen models. Hicks posed for Ralph Lauren and appeared on the cover of "It Girl," a spin-off of the best-selling "Gossip Girl" book and TV series.

Hicks and her sister, Mary Grace, were successful teen models. Hicks posed for Ralph Lauren and appeared on the cover of "It Girl," a spin-off of the best-selling "Gossip Girl" book and TV series.

Hicks met patriarch Trump and quickly "earned his trust," Ivanka Trump told The New York Times for a June 2016 profile on the spokeswoman.

In January 2015, Trump called Hicks into his office on the 26th floor of Trump Tower and told her she was joining his presidential campaign. "I think it’s 'the year of the outsider.' It helps to have people with outsider perspective," Hicks said Trump told her.

Hicks didn't have any political experience, but her public-relations roots run deep. Both grandfathers worked in PR, and her father, Paul, was the NFL's executive vice president for communications and public relations. He was also a town selectman from 1987 to 1991. Greenwich proclaimed April 23, 2016, as Paul B. Hicks III Day.

Hicks started working on what would become Trump's campaign five months before Trump announced his presidency, after he famously rode a golden escalator down to the lobby of his tower on June 16, 2015.

That makes Hicks the campaign staffer who has persisted in Trump's inner circle the longest. She outlasted his first campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, and several senior advisers.

People close to her describe Hicks as a friendly, loyal fighter. Trump has called her a "natural" and "outstanding."

While reporters who have worked with Hicks say she's polite, they have expressed frustration that she was often unreachable on the campaign trail, not responding to requests for comment, or denying access to the candidate.

She said her mom, Caye, told her to write a book about her experience with Trump, like "Primary Colors," the fictional novel depicting President Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign. "You don't even know," she said she told her mother.

During the campaign, Hicks spent most of her days fielding reporters' requests and questions — even reportedly taking dictation from Trump to post his tweets.

During the campaign, Hicks stayed in a free apartment in a Trump building, though she'd often go home to her parents' house in Connecticut when she could.

These days she's in DC. Trump named her his assistant to the president and director of strategic communications in December.

She still flies below the radar, directing the spotlight back on Trump. The then president-elect called her up to the microphone to speak at a "Thank You" rally in December.

It's been said she can act as a sort of Trump whisperer, understanding his many moods and professionally executing what needs to be done. She still only calls him "Sir" or "Mr. Trump."

"If the acting thing doesn’t work out, I could really see myself in politics," Hicks told Greenwich Magazine when she was 13. "Who knows."

In June, the White House released salary info for 377 top staffers. Hicks gets paid the maximum amount that any of Trump's aides receive: $179,700.

Hicks is making as much as Trump's former chief of staff Reince Priebus, chief strategist Steve Bannon, former press secretary Sean Spicer, senior counselor Kellyanne Conway, policy adviser Stephen Miller, and communications official Omarosa Manigault.

Some family members and friends have expressed concern that Hicks is so closely tied to a president whose policies and statements are unpopular with a significant number of Americans, but are confident that she'll come through unscathed.

"There is just no way that a camera or an episode or a documentary could capture what has gone on. There is nothing like it," Hicks told Marie Claire in June 2016. "It is the most unbelievable, awe-inspiring thing."

In August, Trump asked Hicks to be the new interim White House director of communications, a job that Michael Dubke, Sean Spicer, and Anthony Scaramucci held and left in Trump's first six months in office. The White House will announce who will serve in the job permanently "at the appropriate time."

The 28-year-old Hicks is the youngest communications director in history.

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Associated Press writers Padmananda Rama, Laurie Kellman and Eric Tucker contributed to this report.

 

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