Washington - The White House on Wednesday blocked President Donald Trump's former aide Hope Hicks from answering dozens of questions from a House committee, an impasse that hands pro-impeachment Democrats another argument to start proceedings, even as Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., pushed back.
During a closed-door interview with the House Judiciary Committee, a White House attorney and Justice Department lawyer argued that Hicks had immunity from questions about her West Wing tenure - although Hicks is a private citizen. The standoff - and the White House assertion of an exemption that Democrats said simply does not exist - immediately raised the prospect of the House asking a court to force her to testify.
The latest clash between House Democrats and the Trump administration in their ongoing war over Congress' right to conduct oversight comes as nearly 70 House Democrats have called for an impeachment inquiry to begin. Indeed, infuriated members of the Judiciary panel emerged from the nearly eight-hour session with Hicks predicting that the episode would only fortify their case that it was time to start proceedings.
But impeachment proponents still face one major obstacle: Pelosi. The speaker told reporters Wednesday morning, "I don't think you should have an inquiry unless you're ready to impeach" and the Republican-led Senate is willing to convict. She insisted she feels little pressure from her caucus to change her mind.
Pelosi also ruled out a congressional censure of Trump, a move some lawmakers suggested would send a signal of disapproval but be a less divisive alternative to impeachment.
"If you're going to go, you've got to go," she said. "In other words, if the goods are there, you must impeach, and censure is nice, but it is . . . a day at the beach for the president, or at his golf club, or wherever he goes."
The Judiciary panel session with Hicks had been seen as a breakthrough for Democrats, their first interview with a former White House official since Trump asserted executive privilege to bar current and former aides' cooperation. Hicks worked for Trump before he declared his bid for office, served as press secretary on the Trump campaign and then was White House communications director. She is also mentioned more than 180 times in former Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report on Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible obstruction of justice by Trump.
Although Hicks 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 that many others never could. She acted as a gatekeeper of sorts and was often at Trump's side, a witness to Trump's most unvarnished impulses.
That was one of the main reasons Democrats pushed for her testimony. Before the hearing, they laid out topics they hoped to probe, including Trump's firing of FBI Director James Comey, his feelings toward former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to law enforcement about his contacts with a Russian diplomat, and Trump's attitude toward former attorney general Jeff Sessions.
Those hopes were dashed, however, because of the White House's assertion of immunity, which extended even to simple questions about where Hicks's desk was located, according to lawmakers in the room. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., had Hicks read aloud her testimony from the Mueller report - then ask her whether those statements were true.
Counsel barred her from answering that, as well.
At one point, Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., a committee member, took to Twitter to detail several such instances: "Republican Member: Ms. Hicks, did you previously testify before Congress? Ridiculous DOJ Attorney: OBJECTION! Republican Member: Did you testify voluntarily? Ridiculous DOJ Attorney: OBJECTION!"
"I'm watching obstruction of justice in action," Lieu told reporters. "What are they trying to hide from the American people?"
Democrats emerged from the room visibly frustrated and openly discussing the possibility of having to take Hicks to court to force her to answer questions. The committee is preparing to sue former White House counsel Donald McGahn over noncompliance with a congressional subpoena.
"Her refusal to answer questions is based on this very bogus immunity, sort of newly invented, very broad immunity, that you can never be asked anything about anything you ever did while you worked for the president, which is an absurdity . . . This will ultimately be decided by a court," said Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I.
Two hours into the session, Trump expressed his frustration on Twitter, complaining about the Democrats' focus on Hicks rather than 2016 presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
"The Dems are very unhappy with the Mueller Report, so after almost 3 years, they want a Redo, or Do Over. This is extreme Presidential Harassment. They gave Crooked Hillary's people complete Immunity, yet now they bring back Hope Hicks. Why aren't the Dems looking at the . . . 33,000 Emails that Hillary and her lawyer deleted and acid washed AFTER GETTING A SUBPOENA FROM CONGRESS? That is real Obstruction that the Dems want no part of because their hearings are RIGGED and a disgrace to our Country!"
Committee Republicans also criticized the Democrats, accusing them of trying to "re-litigate" the Mueller investigation.
"There's been nothing new here," said Rep. Douglas Collins, R-Ga., the committee's top Republican who assailed Lieu for tweeting about the session.
Hicks, however, did answer some questions about her time on the campaign, including topics such as Russia interference and WikiLeaks references made in meetings.
Freshman Rep. Madeleine Dean, D-Pa., pressed her about a statement she made on Nov. 8, 2016, that "there was no communication between the campaign and any foreign entity during the campaign."
Hicks, according to Dean, acknowledged in the room that she knew of some emails and outreach by Russians at the time but "decided in her mind she didn't find it relevant" and that it didn't constitute "contacts" per se. "She said she didn't think those contacts were relevant," Dean said. "I said I didn't believe it was up to her to decide 'relevance.' "
Cicilline said Hicks was asked about the president's alleged relationship with Playboy model Karen McDougal, although he did not say how she answered.
Hicks was involved in responding to news articles about some of the most closely guarded secrets, including hush-money payments that Democrats and federal prosecutors say constituted campaign finance violations.
In March, Trump appeared to acknowledge the hush-money payments while insisting he had not violated campaign finance laws.
The Washington Post