By David Morgan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Hope Hicks, formerly one of President Donald Trump's closest aides, repeatedly declined to answer questions on Wednesday in an interview with U.S. congressional investigators, with lawyers at her side carefully orchestrating her responses.
Democrats said Hicks' responses during the eight-hour session to questions from members of the House Judiciary Committee, who want to determine whether her former boss broke the law, were restricted to the point of absurdity.
Democratic Representative Ted Lieu posted on Twitter what he called a sample exchange, with the questions modified because the content of the interview was private. Lieu's tweet said:
"Chair: Ms. Hicks, was it a sunny day on your first day of work?
"Ridiculous DOJ Attorney: OBJECTION!
"Chair: Where was your office located?
"Ridiculous DOJ Attorney: OBJECTION!"
House of Representatives Democrats and Trump have been fighting a running battle for months over their power to investigate him, with aspects of it spilling into the courts.
Hicks' appearance was hailed by Democrats as a breakthrough for the Judiciary Committee's broad inquiry into Special Counsel Robert Mueller's probe of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election to help Trump, and Trump's attempts to impede the probe.
Republicans who attended the interview, arranged and led by the majority-Democratic panel, said it yielded little or no new information, and they accused Democrats of political harassment of Trump, a criticism that Republicans have long voiced.
"It appears to be Democrats trying to relitigate the Mueller report," said Republican Representative Matt Gaetz.
Democrats wanted to ask Hicks, 30, about six instances in which they believe Trump may have obstructed justice during the 2016 campaign and while in the White House.
White House lawyers argued that Hicks was "immune" from having to testify about her 14 months in the White House, a strategy in line with Trump's general refusal to cooperate with investigations in the Democratic-led House.
Hicks was directed not to answer questions about material she had already told Mueller, the lawmakers said.
Democrat Steve Cohen said he learned nothing new from Hicks and added that she did not answer a single question about her time in the While House.
Lieu said Hicks did answer questions about the campaign, but he did not elaborate.
Some committee Democrats said White House lawyers did not claim executive privilege for Hicks. Democrats also said they may go to court to force Hicks to respond to their questions.
"We have to establish the record of her refusal to answer the questions so that she can be compelled to do it. So this is what we're doing today," Representative David Cicilline said.
Trump used his Twitter account to chastise the Democrats, saying: "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. They were unhappy with result so they want a Do Over."
Hicks was Trump's campaign press secretary and White House communications director until she left in March 2018, later becoming chief communications officer and executive vice president for Fox Corp, parent of Fox News.
She walked into the behind-closed-doors interview on Wednesday in a Capitol Hill office building surrounded by cameras and reporters, gazing straight ahead and ignoring shouted questions. She departed in silence, as well.
A source familiar with the situation says Hicks remains close to Trump and is a strong supporter but does not speak with him as much as she did when she worked at the White House, where her office was right outside the Oval Office. When Trump was in Los Angeles recently, she visited with him.
Hicks was mentioned at least 183 times in a redacted version of Mueller's report, released on April 18, and Judiciary Committee Democrats wanted to ask her about alleged hush money payments made during the campaign to two women, including porn actress Stormy Daniels, who say they had affairs with Trump. He has denied the affairs.
They also wanted Hicks to talk about five examples of potential obstruction of justice by Trump that are laid out in Mueller's report, as well as the president's efforts to impede the Mueller investigation.
"No prior president has engaged in such a transparent effort to block his own former aides from testifying about the president’s misconduct," Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler said in a letter to the White House counsel.
PELOSI ON IMPEACHMENT
The Judiciary Committee is where any effort to impeach Trump, which Democrats have discussed for months, would begin.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has supported letting multiple congressional investigations of Trump play out before moving to impeach him. On Wednesday, she said if the investigations find criminal wrongdoing, the path would be clear.
"If the goods are there, you must impeach," Pelosi told reporters at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast.
A transcript of Hicks' testimony was expected to be released by the committee and featured at a Thursday hearing where the panel 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.
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 investigation but stopped short of declaring that he committed a crime.
Democratic Representative Joe Neguse said the hearing was "productive" on pre-election aspects of Mueller's investigation. But Neguse added: "The White House's baseless objections and quote unquote testimonial privilege that they asserted is not a position that is tenable for them to take."
(Reporting by David Morgan; Additional reporting by Steve Holland and Richard Cowan; Writing by David Morgan and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh, Bill Trott and Peter Cooney)