U.S. President Donald Trump’s communications director Hope Hicks, one of his longest-serving aides, appeared Tuesday before a congressional panel probing his campaign’s links to Russia, but she declined to answer lawmakers’ questions about her 13 months working in the White House.
The House Intelligence Committee met behind closed doors for several hours with Hicks, who first worked for the Trump family as a public relations spokeswoman for Trump’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, to promote her clothing business before later joining Trump’s campaign on his successful 2016 run for the White House.
The committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Adam Schiff, said Hicks answered questions about the campaign, some about the period between Election Day and when Trump took office, but none about her time working in the White House.
One Democratic congressman on the panel, Denny Heck of Washington state, said in exasperation, “We got Bannoned” by Hicks’s unwillingness to answer all of the questions.
Heck was making a reference to the dispute the committee has had in recent weeks with former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon over the scope of questions he would answer about the weeks after Trump won the election before taking office in January 2017 and then events that occurred after Trump assumed power.
The White House did not invoke executive privilege against Bannon’s testimony, but worked to limit the scope of questions he would answer to a prepared list of queries. It was not immediately known what rationale Hicks gave for not answering all the questions posed to her.
Hicks’ earlier appearance in January before the same committee was scuttled in a dispute over what questions she would answer.
One point of Tuesday’s inquiry likely attempted to focus on her role in helping draft a misleading statement on Air Force One last year about a June 2016 meeting that Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and then-campaign manager Paul Manafort held with a Russian lawyer in Trump Tower in the midst of the campaign. The younger Trump set up the meeting believing he would get incriminating information about Democrat Hillary Clinton, Trump’s opponent, but the mid-2017 statement about the gathering said it was about Americans’ adoptions of Russian children.
Congressman Michael Conaway, a Texas Republican who is running the panel’s Russia investigation, said Monday that he “would not be surprised” if Hicks refused to answer certain questions on grounds that Trump may eventually want to invoke executive privilege to keep secret conversations he had with her.
Trump almost daily attacks the investigations into Russia’s meddling in the election that was aimed at helping him defeat Clinton, a former U.S. secretary of state.
On Tuesday, hours before Hicks was set for questioning, Trump said on Twitter, “WITCH HUNT,” in all capital letters. He quoted several analysts who say they see no evidence that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia or that he obstructed justice in trying to curb the FBI’s Russia investigation by firing former FBI director James Comey, who at the time was leading the agency’s Russia probe.
Trump’s ouster of Comey last May led to the appointment of another former FBI director, Robert Mueller, as the special counsel to continue the Russia investigation.
Mueller has secured guilty pleas from Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and former foreign affairs adviser George Papadopoulos for lying to investigators about their Russia contacts. One-time Trump campaign aide Rick Gates pleaded guilty last week to financial fraud and lying to investigators in connection with his lobbying efforts for the Moscow-backed government in Ukraine that predated his role in the U.S. political race.