/Dems see Hope Hicks testimony as huge gift in legal battle with Trump

Dems see Hope Hicks testimony as huge gift in legal battle with Trump

Hope Hicks

Former White House communications director Hope Hicks leaves a closed-door interview with members of the House Judiciary Committee. | Andrew Harnik/AP Photo

EXCLUSIVE

In an exclusive interview, Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler also said Democrats would soon sue former White House Counsel Don McGahn.

House Democrats are planning to file a lawsuit within days to force former White House counsel Don McGahn to testify on Capitol Hill — and they say Hope Hicks’ reluctant testimony Wednesday will help deliver them a crucial win in court.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler said Hicks’ blanket refusal to tell lawmakers about her tenure in the West Wing is the real-life illustration Democrats needed to show a judge just how extreme the White House’s blockade on witness testimony has become.

Story Continued Below

“It very much played into our hands,” Nadler said in an interview in his Capitol Hill office Thursday. “It’s one thing to tell a judge blanket immunity is not a right thing. It’s another thing when a judge can see what that means in actuality, and how absurd it is.”

Nadler said he is working with the House general counsel to draft the lawsuit against McGahn, a central witness for special counsel Robert Mueller. The New York Democrat said he’s confident that a win in the McGahn case would create a precedent that forces the White House to back off its resistance to Democrats’ investigations and permit other key Mueller witnesses, like Hicks, to talk to lawmakers.

“That court case is key to everything,” Nadler said. “[Hicks] will be forthcoming only under legal compulsion.”

White House lawyers intervened hundreds of times on Wednesday to claim that Hicks, a longtime confidante of Trump who served as White House communications director, had “absolute immunity” from talking to Congress. Though some Democrats were infuriated by Hicks’ refusal to answer even basic questions about her years working in the Trump White House, Nadler said he anticipated the stonewalling and that his decision to move forward with the interview was by design.

“I understand, obviously, there are people in the press, in Congress and elsewhere saying, ‘Why’d they waste their time with that? What was the point? What’d they accomplish?’” Nadler said. “We knew this was going to happen. The point of it was to dramatize for the court what the implications of this are.”

Hicks wouldn’t answer questions as basic as where her desk was located in the White House or whether an Israel-Egypt war broke out while she worked in the government — something that clearly never happened. She also declined to discuss interactions she had with figures outside the White House, including former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and former Trump legal team spokesman Mark Corallo.

“It’s very useful to show the judge what this means in practical reality… what an incredible assertion of executive supremacy and of congressional irrelevance,” Nadler said.

“In effect what it’s saying is, you can’t really investigate fraud, waste, abuse of power in the White House because anyone in a position to talk about it, we’re blocking,” he added. “And the [Hicks interview] was very useful to give us the record that we can show the judge how extreme it really is.”

Nadler emphasized that the committee’s inability to get Hicks to answer any questions about the Trump White House offered a long-term strategic victory, too.

If a court finds that the administration’s conception of “immunity” goes too far and orders McGahn to testify, it’s a precedent Nadler said could be used to speed the appearances of Mueller witnesses like Hicks and other former White House officials who testified about Trump’s efforts to thwart the special counsel’s investigation of his 2016 campaign’s contacts with Russia.

McGahn, who like Hicks provided damning testimony to Mueller about Trump’s efforts to interfere with the probe, refused to appear before the Judiciary Committee last month or to provide documents demanded in a subpoena.

Hicks, though, opted to appear before the committee — allowing Nadler to test the willingness of the White House to block every single question about her White House service.

Last week, the House voted to empower Nadler and other committee chairs to sue the Trump administration to enforce subpoenas that have been defied or ignored. In the meantime, the Justice Department has given Judiciary Committee members access to some of Mueller’s “key” evidence, including FBI witness interview notes.

Several Democrats — including Nadler — have privately argued to Speaker Nancy Pelosi that opening an impeachment inquiry would strengthen their hand in the courts, arguing that a formal judicial proceeding is one of the only ways to speed up federal court battles that can often take months or years.

But Pelosi has maintained her hard line against impeachment, even as she has characterized the White House’s continued resistance to House Democrats’ investigations as “obstruction of justice.”

Nadler said Thursday that his committee’s lawsuit against McGahn will come well before any final decision is made on impeachment. Therefore, he argued, Hicks’ testimony will arm the House general counsel with another crucial data point in its ongoing legal fights.

“We want to go to court now,” Nadler said. “We want to unlock this now. Impeachment is not now.”

In addition to Hicks and McGahn, Trump has instructed his former deputy counsel Annie Donaldson to defy the committee’s subpoenas seeking documents and witness testimony. The Justice Department has repeatedly provided legal justification for the White House’s positions and crafted new opinions asserting the president’s view.

The president’s continued stonewalling has frustrated the Democratic rank-and-file, and a majority of Democrats who serve on the Judiciary Committee have now endorsed opening up a formal impeachment inquiry. For now, though, the panel isn’t going there.

Instead, the committee has in recent weeks held hearings with former federal prosecutors and Nixon White House Counsel John Dean in an effort to air the findings of the Mueller report for the public. But Democrats are still agitating for a breakthrough and hope they may be getting closer.

“I understand, obviously, people are getting frustrated,” Nadler said. “‘Why aren’t you having fact witnesses? Why are you having John Dean and former prosecutors pontificate?’ Well the fact of the matter is, we can’t get fact witnesses until we win in court.”