A White House lawyer barred former top Trump aide Hope Hicks from answering questions to Congress on Wednesday about her time in office, according to Democrats who emerged from the closed-door session frustrated and angry.
The House Judiciary Committee had considered it a coup to get Ms. Hicks to testify — the first senior administration official cited in special counsel Robert Mueller’s report to do so — but said the session turned into a farce when it became clear she wouldn’t be allowed to talk about her dealings with Mr. Trump as president.
“I’m watching obstruction of justice in action,” fumed Rep. Ted Lieu, California Democrat. “You have their White House serving ‘absolute immunity’ which is not a thing — it doesn’t exist.”
Mr. Trump, meanwhile, lashed out at Democrats for making Ms. Hicks show up to testify.
“So sad that the Democrats are putting wonderful Hope Hicks through hell, for 3 years now, after total exoneration by Robert Mueller & the Mueller Report,” the president tweeted. “They were unhappy with result so they want a Do Over. Very unfair & costly to her. Will it ever end?”
During the roughly eight-hour interview, Democrats pressed Ms. Hicks on Mr. Trump’s efforts to obstruct investigations into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and his campaign’s activities.
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They also grilled her on the president’s role in hush payments made to two women who said they had affairs with Mr. Trump.
But hopes Ms. Hicks would deliver them a smoking gun on any front were quickly dashed by the White House and her private attorney. Ms. Hicks declined to answer questions about her time working in the administration and the presidential transition as her lawyers claimed she was “absolutely immune” from lawmakers’ questions, Democrats said.
Even a question about where her office was located in the White House was declared off-limits by the attorney.
The White House has asserted Ms. Hicks is immune from being forced to testify by subpoena, arguing that as a former senior adviser for Mr. Trump she is covered by his executive privilege.
White House Attorney Pat Cipollone wrote the committee Tuesday, saying the president has instructed her not to answer questions about her time in the White House.
Democrats slammed the Trump White House claim as “ridiculous” and “frustrating.”
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“There is no such thing as absolute immunity that prevents someone from answering questions about any subject related to their work in an administration. It just doesn’t exist,” said Rep. David Cicilline, Rhode Island Democrat. “This is an ongoing effort by the president of the United States to obstruct, to prevent Congress from finding the facts and behaving as if he’s above the law.”
House Judiciary Chairman Rep. Jerrold Nadler, New York Democrat, told reporters a court fight is looming.
“Hope Hicks answered some questions. She gave us a lot of good information,” he said. “The White House asserted so-called absolute immunity, which is ridiculous and which we’ll destroy in court.”
Ms. Hicks declined to speak with reporters after the hearing.
Rep. Doug Collins, the committee’s top Republican, said Democrats will lose if they do go to court.
The Trump White House position is similar to that maintained by presidents of both parties, dating decades.
The Obama White House made similar immunity arguments in 2014 in blocking testimony from David Simas, who served as director of the White House Office of Political Strategy and Outreach.
Mr. Collins said Democrats should have known the hearing with Ms. Hicks wouldn’t amount to much.
“We are getting nothing new out of this,” Mr. Collins said. “And when you try to redo the Mueller report, which [Democrats] held up as the gold standard with all the attorneys, subpoena power and grand juries. What is our committee going to do when we have a minuscule part of that?”
Rep. Steve Chabot, Ohio Republican, slammed the hearing as “a waste of time and money.”
“There are other things we ought to be focused on like improving the infrastructure, doing something about the 145,000 illegal immigrants that came across our southern border in one month, we’ve got real problems with Iran right now and yet we are screwing around with Hope Hicks,” he said. “I mean, what a waste of time.”
Mr. Nadler says he plans to release a transcript of what Ms. Hicks did say sometime this week.
Ms. Hicks is featured prominently in the Mueller report, offering her version of some key events in the Russia probe.
Among the juiciest pieces of information was related to the infamous 2016 Trump Tower meeting.
Ms. Hicks said the president instructed her to tell the press the meeting between key campaign officials and a Russian lawyer who promised dirt on Hillary Clinton was about Russian adoption regulations.
Mr. Mueller concluded the incident didn’t amount to obstruction because it is not a crime to lie to the press.
Ms. Hicks also told Mr. Mueller’s team about the president’s unsuccessful efforts to get former Attorney General Jeff Sessions to reverse his decision to recuse himself from the Russia probe.