WASHINGTON: Hope Hicks, once a close aide and communications director for President Donald Trump, becomes on Wednesday (Jun 19) the first member of his inner circle to testify to the congressional panel leading a probe into possible obstruction of justice by Trump.
Democrats who control the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee believe Hicks can provide important insights into troubling chapters of former Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report on Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, and Trump's efforts to interfere with the investigation.
"She's our first fact witness," said Jamie Raskin, a Democratic lawmaker on the committee. "Having somebody talking about what happened from a personal perspective will be a dramatic debut for the committee."
Hicks, who was one of Trump's closest aides during the 2016 campaign and the first 14 months of his presidency, was subpoenaed to testify and is due to appear at 9am (1300 GMT) on Wednesday, the committee said.
It will be a closed-door interview with lawmakers, and the committee will release a transcript afterward.
The White House is trying to prevent former Trump aides from cooperating with a string of congressional investigations into Trump, so it is unclear how helpful the 30-year-old public relations consultant will be.
Hicks' attorney did not respond to a Reuters request for comment.
Mueller's 448-page report refers to Hicks more than 180 times and places her in the middle of some of the most incriminating episodes involving Trump, who did not agree to answer Mueller's questions on obstruction.
Democrats want Hicks to shed light on a Jun 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 who had offered "dirt" on Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
One question is whether Trump himself was aware of the meeting at the time.
The Mueller report quotes former deputy campaign chairman Rick Gates as saying Trump Jr. told Hicks, other campaign staff and Trump family members about his plans for the meeting but that Hicks denied knowing about the meeting until months later.
The report also recounts how in July 2017, Trump directed Hicks to issue a misleading statement to the press saying only that the Trump Tower meeting had been about Russian adoption.
"I would like to know about her involvement in that process and what she personally knew happened," said Ted Lieu, another Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. "She was involved in that whole chain of events, where the president lied about what actually happened."
Mueller’s report concluded there was insufficient evidence to establish that the Trump campaign engaged in a criminal conspiracy with Moscow. It also described attempts by Trump to impede Mueller’s probe, but stopped short of declaring that he committed a crime.
EVIDENCE OF OBSTRUCTION?
Hicks was also present for two separate episodes that Mueller cited as offering relevant evidence of obstruction after Trump took office: his efforts to get former Attorney General Jeff Sessions to redirect the Russia probe away from his 2016 election campaign team, and his attempts to persuade former White House Counsel Don McGahn to deny that Trump asked him to remove Mueller.
Lawmakers are not sure whether Hicks will talk about her time in Trump's administration. The White House has already directed her not to give the committee documents pertaining to her tenure there, which ended in March 2018. Last month, the White House directed McGahn to ignore a subpoena for documents and testimony, leading him to skip a committee hearing.
House Republicans dismiss the committee probe as political overreach calculated to placate Democratic voters who want Trump impeached.
"It just seems like the Democrats are trying to influence the 2020 election and using the committees to do so," said Debbie Lesko, a Republican on the panel.
Legal experts believe Hicks could decline to answer questions on key topics, citing Trump's assertion of executive privilege over the Mueller report.
That could force the committee to seek a federal court order directing her to testify, an action the full House authorized in a party-line vote last week.
The committee has also subpoenaed Annie Donaldson, McGahn's former chief of staff, to testify on Jun 24. Donaldson did not respond to a Reuters query.