Obstruction of justice in plain sight: Hope Hicks fails to answer questions at direction of the White House

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Prior to her testimony on Wednesday before the House Judiciary Committee, the White House asserted that former aide Hope Hicks has “absolute immunity” from being compelled by Congress to testify about her time working in the Trump administration. White House says Hope Hicks ‘immune’ from compelled congressional testimony:

White House counsel Pat Cipollone sent a letter to House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) on the eve of Hicks’s scheduled closed-door testimony, notifying the top Democrat that President Trump had instructed Hicks not to answer the panel’s questions about her time working in the White House.

Ms. Hicks is absolutely immune from being compelled to testify before Congress with respect to matters occurring during her service as a senior adviser to the President,” Cipollone wrote Tuesday.

“Because of this constitutional immunity, and in order to protect the prerogatives of the Office of the President, the President has directed Ms. Hicks not to answer questions before the Committee relating to the time of her service as a senior adviser to the President,” he wrote.

The White House previously asserted “absolute immunity” for former White House counsel Don McGahn as well, who failed to appear for his scheduled testimony before the House Judiciary Committee.

This is part and parcel of the Trump administration’s “total obstruction of Congress” policy.

Former White House Counsel Robert Bauer explains at Just Security blog, The Three-Level Game in the White House Effort to Block McGahn’s Testimony (excerpt):

It’s highly unlikely the Trump White House will find vindication in the courts. At least one court has confronted an absolute immunity claim advanced by a prior administration. George W. Bush sought to prevent testimony from a White House Counsel and another senior adviser about controversial firings of U.S. attorneys, but in a lengthy and carefully reasoned opinion, the court found that any such immunity was qualified only and had to yield to demonstrated congressional need for the information. It did not find that it was a close call: “The Executive’s current claim of absolute immunity from compelled congressional process for senior presidential aides is without any support in the case law.” The White House and the Congress eventually reached an accommodation consisting of closed-door interviews coupled with the requirement of an interview transcript for public release. OLC dismisses this case as entitled to no or little weight since the accommodation cut short the appellate process and prevented a definitive resolution of the issue.

Whether OLC mistakenly slighted this precedent is a question for another time and more litigation. There are other reasons why the administration should have little confidence that, if the question comes before the courts for a more final answer, the outcome would be different. The Supreme Court provided a powerful preview in the Nixon tapes.

The Nixon tapes case did not resolve the constitutional question that the White House has put into play: It specifically did not address the question whether the president can claim unqualified absolute immunity for senior aides facing a congressional request for subpoena. But the constitutional framework it established for the resolution of the question is unfavorable to the administration. At the highest level of generality, the tapes case stands for the proposition that the executive may not assert immunities so sweeping that they undermine core functions of a co-equal branch. The Nixon case was clear on the point that “the separate powers were not intended to operate with absolute independence,” and it cited the fabled Youngstown precedent in support of the constitutional plan to “integrate the dispersed powers into a workable government. It enjoins upon its branches separateness but interdependence, autonomy but reciprocity.”

This position cannot be squared with the president’s claim that his senior advisers need not appear before the Congress on any topic in any circumstances.

What happened at the hearing is what one would expect. CNN reports Hope Hicks won’t answer questions about the White House in congressional interview:

Former White House communications director Hope Hicks did not respond to any questions about her time at the White House in a closed-door congressional interview Wednesday, angering Democrats who say they expect to go to court to force her to answer their questions.

White House attorneys objected to all questions related to the White House, Democrats say, all the way down to where Hicks sat in the West Wing. But Hicks did answer questions about her time on the Trump campaign, which is not covered by executive privilege.

In questioning about the campaign, Hicks told lawmakers that she did not have knowledge during the 2016 campaign of the hush-money payments made in the run-up to the election, according to three sources with knowledge of her testimony.

Hicks did not answer questions about whether she was informed of the payments while working at the White House because the White House argued that fell under her time covered by their claim of immunity from congressional testimony, the sources said.

Hicks was asked by Democrats about her comments in a Wall Street Journal story about the payments to Playboy playmate Karen McDougal published before the election, in which she called the payments “totally untrue.”

* * *

House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler told reporters as he exited the interview, which is still ongoing, that she was answering some questions.

“Hope Hicks answered some questions. She gave us a lot of good information. The White House asserted so-called absolute immunity, which is ridiculous and which we’ll destroy in court,” Nadler said.

Although many questions from Democrats were not answered, Hicks did provide some responses, such as when she was asked about her House Intelligence Committee testimony from 2018 in which she said that she sometimes told white lies on behalf of the President.

Under Democratic questioning, Hicks told the panel that she never lied about anything “substantial,” according to multiple sources. Hicks said that the lies were about small matters such as scheduling, which was similar to her previous testimony.

Still, it’s not clear how fruitful the interview was, as multiple Democrats said they learned little from the testimony.

“Nothing new,” said Rep. Steve Cohen, a Tennessee Democrat.

“Not too much,” responded Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California when asked what she learned.

Asked Tuesday about the White House instructing Hicks not to answer questions, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said: “Obstruction of justice.”

So what are you going to do about it, Nancy? Keep accusing Trump of crimes, but cower from instituting an impeachment inquiry? Donald Trump is a predator, he feeds on the weak and fearful. You are only encouraging far worse behavior from Trump by appearing weak and fearful to act. Time’s up, Nancy. You have to start impeachment now.

The committee planned to release a transcript of Hicks’ interview afterward within 48 hours. That transcript of her closed-door testimony has now been released. POLITICO reports, Hope Hicks refused to answer 155 questions during House testimony:

Hope Hicks refused to answer 155 questions from House Democrats on Wednesday about her tenure as communications director in the Trump White House, according to a transcript of her closed-door testimony released Thursday.

The longtime confidante of President Donald Trump acquiesced to the White House’s directives to not answer questions during her nearly eight-hour interview with the House Judiciary Committee. The transcript — and the dozens of objections from White House lawyers — underscores the extent to which the White House sought to assert that Hicks has “absolute immunity” from talking to lawmakers, who are investigating evidence that Trump attempted to obstruct special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

During Wednesday’s testimony, Hicks refused to answer several questions about the president’s actions, her conversations with him and her discussions even with officials outside the White House, according to the transcript. She did not answer questions about her testimony to Mueller, either — a fact that enraged Democrats who argued that she had no legal basis to refuse to discuss events that she already described in detail to the special counsel.

Most notably, the White House objected to lawmakers’ questions about Trump’s attempts to constrain the special counsel’s investigation, including his directives to then-White House Counsel Don McGahn to fire Mueller.

Hicks also refused to answer basic questions such as where her desk was located in the White House, and whether there was a war between Israel and Egypt during her tenure.

* * *

Hicks said she had no knowledge of Trump’s arrangement with his former attorney and fixer, Michael Cohen, to buy the silence of various women who alleged that they had affairs with Trump. Cohen is currently serving a three-year sentence for the scheme — which prosecutors said violated campaign-finance laws — and for lying to Congress about the timing of the failed negotiations surrounding the construction of a Trump Tower in Moscow.

Hicks appeared to show that she remains loyal to Trump, often refusing to break with the president’s views on how he conducted his campaign. For example, she defended the Trump campaign’s use of hacked Democratic National Committee emails and other materials at rallies and on social media, saying it was simply done to “show a differentiation” between Trump and Hillary Clinton.

Hicks said she felt “relief” when WikiLeaks released those hacked materials, telling the committee she was relieved to know “that other campaigns had obstacles to face as well.”

But Hicks appeared to break with Trump’s willingness to accept foreign dirt on his political rivals, saying that she would call the FBI “if I felt it was legitimate enough to have our law enforcement dedicate their time to it.” She also said she “would not” advise anyone to accept information offered from a foreign government during a U.S. election campaign.

* * *

Two White House lawyers, Michael Purpura and Patrick Philbin, objected to lawmakers’ and committee staffers’ questions every time the inquiry touched on Hicks’ service in the White House and during the presidential transition period, which pre-dates Trump’s presidency.

Purpura told Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) that the White House was not formally asserting executive privilege to block Hicks’ testimony; he only stated the White House’s view that Hicks “may not be compelled to speak about events that occurred during her service as a senior adviser to the president.”

Hicks abided by Purpura’s demands, telling Nadler: “As a former senior adviser to the president, I’m following the instructions from the White House.” Hicks’ attorney, Robert Trout, said his client was “simply following the guidance of the White House.”

At one point, Nadler challenged those claims of “absolute immunity,” telling Purpura: “With all due respect, that is absolute nonsense as a matter of law.”

Hicks was permitted by White House lawyers to answer innocuous questions such as where she usually ate her lunch and whether it was sunny or cloudy on her first day on the job. She was also permitted to discuss her April dinner with Trump, during which she said they were “reminiscing about events from the campaign, rallies, things like that.” She said she did not discuss her congressional testimony with the president, but Philbin objected when Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) asked her if they discussed Trump’s comments about the congressional investigations, which Trump has railed against.

Nadler has not specified whether he will seek a court order that would force Hicks to answer questions that involve her White House tenure and her testimony to the special counsel.

So here’s the problem: Democrats are playing by the rules, following all the legal procedural requirements and due process, which takes time. The wheels of justice turn slowly. This plays into Trump’s strategy to try to run out the clock.

Trump and his Republican accessories in Congress who are aiding and abetting his obstruction of Congress and obstruction of justice — impeachable offenses — have thrown out the rule book. “Rules? There’s no stinkin’ rules” in the personality cult of Donald Trump. There is only abuse of power, and a rejection of the rule of law. This is how every authoritarian regime in history has come to power.