U.S. House panel to quiz ex-Trump aide Hicks, White House asserts immunity

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Hope Hicks, once a close aide to U.S. President Donald Trump, is due to face questions in Congress on Wednesday on six instances in which Democrats believe Trump may have broken the law during the 2016 election campaign and while in the White House.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump reacts as he stands next to former White House Communications Director Hope Hicks outside of the Oval Office as he departs the White House for a trip to Cleveland, Ohio, in Washington D.C., U.S., March 29, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Barria/File Photo

The White House has asserted immunity over any testimony by Hicks involving her 14 months at the White House, according to a knowledgeable source. But the 30-year-old former fashion model was still expected to appear under subpoena before the House Judiciary Committee at 9 a.m. (1300 GMT).

She was expected to be accompanied by four lawyers – two from the White House and two of her own, said sources with knowledge of the situation. Hicks could remain well into the evening, fielding a wide range of questions from the panel’s 41 Democratic and Republican lawmakers and staff.

Hicks was Trump’s former campaign press secretary and his White House communications director until she left the administration in March 2018.

Democrats want to hear from her about alleged hush money payments made during the campaign to two women, including porn star Stormy Daniels, who say they had affairs with Trump. He has denied the affairs.

They also want Hicks to talk about five examples of potential obstruction of justice by Trump that are laid out in U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian election meddling in the 2016 presidential election, as well as the president’s efforts to impede the Mueller investigation.

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Assertions during questioning of executive privilege, a legal principle sometimes cited by presidents to keep White House information under wraps, would block a key line of inquiry by the committee and could lead to a subsequent legal challenge.

Despite the closed setting, Democrats, who control the House of Representatives, view Hicks’ appearance as a breakthrough for their congressional investigation, which could trigger impeachment proceedings against the president if it unearths evidence of serious misconduct.

Democrats say her appearance could help undermine Trump’s strategy of stonewalling congressional investigators by encouraging others to cooperate with them and by giving investigators the chance to challenge any executive privilege assertions, possibly in federal court.

LEGAL ACTION?

The White House last month asserted executive privilege to block the release of Mueller’s full, unredacted report and related evidence, such as investigative interviews. The committee and the Justice Department have since reached an agreement giving panel members access to more of the Mueller report and some underlying material from the investigation.

The House voted 229-191 on June 11 on party lines to

authorize House committees to file lawsuits in federal court seeking orders from judges to compel officials to cooperate with official congressional demands for testimony or evidence.

Former White House Counsel Don McGahn, a star witness in the Mueller report, last month defied a subpoena for his testimony and documents after the White House directed him not to cooperate with the Judiciary panel.

McGahn could face legal action. Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler said last week that other witnesses, including Hicks and former McGahn aide Annie Donaldson, could also face court action if they defy committee subpoenas.

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Mueller’s 448-page report found insufficient evidence to establish that the Trump campaign engaged in a criminal conspiracy with Moscow, despite numerous contacts between the campaign and Russia. It also described numerous attempts by Trump to impede Mueller’s probe, but stopped short of declaring that he committed a crime.

Democrats want Hicks to testify about an effort by the president to mislead the public about a June 9, 2016, meeting at Trump Tower in New York, where the Mueller report said campaign officials, including the president’s son Donald Trump Jr., met with Russians offering “dirt” on Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. A key question is whether Trump himself was aware of the meeting at the time.

Aides said Hicks would also be asked about alleged obstruction by Trump involving McGahn, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, former FBI Director James Comey and former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

A transcript of her testimony, which will be released after the interview, will be featured at a Thursday hearing where the committee will examine an ABC News interview, in which Trump said he saw nothing wrong with accepting damaging information about a U.S. political opponent from a foreign government, aides said.

Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Peter Cooney

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