White House communications director Hope Hicks on Tuesday declined to answer some questions from the House Intelligence Committee about the presidential transition or her time in the White House, mirroring refusals from previous witnesses, according to multiple lawmakers.
According to Democratic lawmakers, Hicks demurred at the instruction of the White House but stopped short of formally invoking executive privilege.
“We got Bannon’ed,” Rep. Denny Heck (D-Wash.) told reporters, referring to former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon, who attempted to place similar limits on his testimony during two appearances before the panel in recent weeks.
Under pressure from lawmakers, Hicks agreed later in the day to answer some questions related to the transition period, according to Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.) — but only because she had already broached those matters in a previous interview with the Senate Intelligence Committee.
“The White House hadn’t realized that she had testified before the Senate on those issues — so whatever she had testified before the Senate she can testify [to the House committee],” said Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.), who said that there were phone calls between the White House and Hicks and her counsel during the interview.
Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.), the top Democrat on the committee, said that once Hicks got the green light from the White House she answered “many” questions about the Trump transition period. However, he said, she continued to refuse to answer questions about the administration as well as “key events such as the fabrication of that statement about the Trump Tower meeting.”
“All our questions about what went into that statement went unanswered,” Schiff told reporters after the roughly nine-hour interview concluded.
Hicks has been linked to some of the mostly highly scrutinized incidents of the Trump campaign, including an infamous June 2016 Trump Tower meeting during which Donald Trump Jr. met with a Russian lawyer with reported ties to the Kremlin.
Although Hicks was not present for that meeting, she reportedly helped draft Trump Jr.’s initial, misleading statement about the meeting that claimed he met with the lawyer to discuss Russian adoptions. News reports, however, later revealed Trump Jr. attended the meeting with the intention of obtaining dirt on Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton .
Even as Democratic lawmakers were filtering in and out of the closed-door interview expressing frustration, the White House insisted that it was cooperating fully with the committee’s investigation into Russia’s election interference.
“I’m not going to comment on any individual’s interactions with the committee,” press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Tuesday afternoon when asked whether the White House directed Hicks not to answer certain questions.
But, Sanders continued, “We are cooperating because, as the president said repeatedly, there is no collusion.”
Democrats complained bitterly that while Republicans were willing to subpoena Bannon to compel his testimony, they have shown no appetite to take that step with subsequent witnesses, including Hicks and former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski .
Schiff characterized this as the “Bannon rule,” where the majority seeks to shake down a witness for information only if it is Bannon.
The California lawmaker complained that Republicans refused his calls to issue a subpoena on Hicks earlier in the interview when she refused to discuss the transition period.
“This is not executive privilege, this is executive stonewalling,” he said.
Republicans sought to temper those criticisms, saying that Hicks is cooperating with their questions about the campaign and that she presents a different case than the firebrand former Breitbart News chief.
“There is one difference: She is still a White House employee. He wasn’t,” King said.
“Every since she has decided to answer questions based on that transition, she can’t be compared to Bannon,” Rooney said, adding that she is not under subpoena like Bannon was.
Bannon ignited fury among committee Republicans in January — shortly after a public fallout with President Trump over comments he made in the controversial book “Fire and Fury” — prompting them to issue a subpoena to compel him to provide testimony. In his subsequent interview earlier this month, he invoked what both Democrats and Republicans described as effectively a form of executive privilege by only answering 25 yes-or-no questions scripted by the White House.
They argued that as a private citizen, Bannon did not have the legal grounds to make such an assertion.
But Republicans have so far taken no steps to enforce the subpoena against Bannon by initiating contempt of Congress proceedings. Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), who is leading the committee’s investigation into Russian interference, told reporters on Tuesday that he has yet to speak to Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) about the matter.
Hicks has been one of Trump’s closest associates, following him from the campaign trail into the West Wing after previously working for his elder daughter, Ivanka Trump .
Although they insisted Hicks was forthcoming in answering questions about the campaign, some Republicans have continued to express discomfort with witnesses claiming executive privilege for the transition period, a claim that is without precedent.
Rooney, a senior member on the committee, said the basis for those refusals should be examined.
“I know you’re going to ask me about transition and what we’ve said about Bannon and that’s a legitimate concern,” Rooney told reporters. “What privilege is there with regard to transition and those questions need to be answered.”
The divide over the need to subpoena Hicks is the latest in the ongoing partisan breakdown on the intelligence panel.
“There’s no ‘hope’ to get all our answers,” quipped Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.).