House Democrats on Wednesday will question one of President Trump’s most trusted former advisers about potential obstruction of justice, Russian attempts to woo Trump associates during the 2016 campaign and hush-money payments to women alleging affairs with Trump.
Hope Hicks, the onetime White House communications director who is mentioned more than 180 times in former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report, is scheduled to testify privately before the House Judiciary Committee, which plans to release a transcript upon conclusion.
The session constitutes a breakthrough for Democrats, their first interview with a former White House official since Trump has asserted executive privilege to bar current and former aides’ cooperation.
A White House lawyer will be present to keep Hicks from answering questions they say should be kept secret under the broad claims of executive privilege. The committee fully expects Hicks to decline to answer questions about her time at the White House, speaking only about the campaign.
But that doesn’t mean Democrats won’t try to unearth information that could shed light on Trump’s mind-set during several instances of potential obstruction outlined in Mueller’s report. Due to her past status in Trump’s orbit, Hicks was privy to and witnessed Trump’s unguarded impulses during several of those key episodes.
Indeed, Democrats have already laid out topics they hope to probe, including Trump’s firing of FBI Director James B. Comey and his feelings toward former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to law enforcement about his contacts with a Russian diplomat. They plan to ask her about Trump’s attitude toward former attorney general Jeff Sessions, as well as what she knew about the campaign-time hush-money payments, according to a committee official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss the plans.
The session could set the stage for the panel to replicate the forum as they try to break new ground investigating the president. Committee Democrats are expanding their document and witness-testimony requests to other Trump officials identified in the Mueller report, including Rick A. Dearborn, former White House deputy chief of staff, and Jody Hunt, Sessions’s chief of staff.
Some of the lawmakers on the panel have also mentioned a desire to speak with former New Jersey governor Chris Christie (R) and former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, who could also unpack parts of the Mueller report.
Hicks, however, is of key interest to Democrats because of her closeness to the president. She worked for Trump before he declared his bid for office, served as press secretary on the Trump campaign and then served as White House communications director.
While the 30-year-old largely stayed out of the limelight during her White House stint, administration insiders have long said that Hicks had Trump’s ear in a way many others never could. In fact, a Russian Embassy official reached out to Hicks at 3 a.m. after the election was called to try to connect Russian President Vladimir Putin and the president-elect.
“Can you look into this? Don’t want to get duped but don’t want to blow off Putin!” Hicks wrote at the time to Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, unsure of the authenticity of the phone call and a follow-up email.
Hicks was also involved in responding to news articles about some of the most closely guarded secrets in Trump World, including hush-money payments that Democrats and federal prosecutors say constituted campaign finance violations.
Three days before the 2016 election, the Wall Street Journal reported that the National Enquirer had agreed to pay $150,000 to model Karen McDougal, who said she’d had an affair with Trump a decade earlier, but never ran a story. Asked about the payment at the time, Hicks told the Journal: “We have no knowledge of any of this,” adding that McDougal’s claim of an affair was “totally untrue.”
In fact, Trump attorney Michael Cohen and David Pecker, chief executive of the magazine’s parent company, American Media Inc., had acknowledged that Pecker agreed to pay McDougal as a way of securing her silence before the election. Cohen — who pleaded guilty to a campaign finance violation in connection with the episode last year — said the deal was arranged at Trump’s direction.
Democrats are likely to ask Hicks who she spoke to before issuing the denial of the Journal’s reporting and whether Trump was involved in the release of false information. They could also inquire about any contacts she had directly with Pecker. The Journal has reported that Hicks called Pecker to discuss the story before giving her statement to the Journal.
In March, Trump appeared to acknowledge the hush-money payments while insisting he had not violated campaign finance laws.
During the campaign, the presidential transition and her time in the White House, Hicks repeatedly played down Russian contacts with campaign officials, following Trump’s lead. Hicks told Mueller’s investigators that Trump saw the intelligence community’s assessment that Russians interfered in the election as his “Achilles’ heel” because he worried voters would think Russia helped him win, undercutting his victory.
Two days after the 2016 election, when a Russian official told the media that their government had been in touch with the Trump campaign before the election, Hicks as campaign spokeswoman said that was false: “There was no communication between the campaign and any foreign entity during the campaign,” she said at the time.
When Trump campaign official Carter Page started to come under scrutiny for his contacts with Russia and pro-Russian foreign policy views in the summer of 2016, Hicks instructed others in the campaign — including Kellyanne Conway and Stephen K. Bannon — to downplay Page’s role with the team and tell reporters they had “no knowledge of activities past or president,” the report said.
Page was let go from the campaign in September 2016.
Democrats will also ask Hicks about the June 9, 2016, Trump Tower meeting when Trump officials — including Donald Trump Jr. — met with a Russian lawyer after they were promised dirt on Hillary Clinton. Rick Gates, deputy campaign manager, told investigators that Hicks was one of several people in attendance at a campaign meeting before the huddle, in which Trump Jr. told the others that he had a lead on negative information on the Clinton Foundation.
Hicks denied to prosecutors that she had known anything about the meeting with the Russian lawyer before 2017.
Hicks did, however, tell investigators intricate details of her role in crafting a false statement about the Trump Tower meeting as media prepared to report about the session in July 2017. Mueller’s prosecutors wrote that it was not clear that the false statement was intended to mislead investigators and obstruct their work; it is not illegal to lie to the public.
According to an account she gave prosecutors, Hicks pushed the president to be fully transparent about the meeting, saying the emails looked “really bad” and predicting they would create a “massive” story unless the Trump campaign got out ahead of it.
But Trump directed Hicks at least three times between late June and mid-July 2017 to not disclose the truth, the report found. “Leave it alone,” Trump told her. Or “we’re done.”
On July 8, 2017, aboard Air Force One, she put together a statement at Trump’s direction to be released by Donald Trump Jr. to the New York Times that omitted any reference to dirt on Clinton and instead said that the meeting had been primarily about the adoption of Russian children.
Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.