WASHINGTON — White House communications director Hope Hicks refused to answer questions about the Trump administration that House investigators posed Tuesday as part of their probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
But under pressure from lawmakers, she began to offer some details about the transition period Tuesday afternoon, according to House Intelligence Committee members of both parties, who said Hicks and her attorneys agreed to address topics broached with the Senate Intelligence Committee in an earlier private interview.
Hicks, who has already spoken with Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s team as part of its probe, has become a central figure in a dispute between lawmakers and the White House about when and where witnesses can legitimately resist answering questions in a congressional probe.
Democrats and Republicans emerging from the House Intelligence Committee’s interview with Hicks on Tuesday noted that, at first, she categorically resisted answering any questions about events and conversations that had occurred since President Donald Trump won the election, even though Trump has not formally invoked executive privilege with the panel.
“No one’s asserting privilege; they’re following the orders of the White House not to answer certain questions,” Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Illinois, a committee member, said after the interview had been going for about four hours.
“There’s no hope to get all our answers,” he added, noting the pun and adding: “tip your servers.”
Democrats on the panel tried to insist during the interview that Hicks be served with a subpoena, as was done with former White House strategist Stephen K. Bannon last month when he refused to answer similar questions.
“There’s apparently one rule for Steve Bannon and another rule for everyone else,” top panel Democrat Rep. Adam Schiff, D-California, complained following the interview.
Both Democrats and Republicans said that Hicks changed her approach later in the interview, after her attorneys spoke by phone with the White House to clarify which questions pertaining to the period between Election Day and Trump’s inauguration she would answer. Hicks began speaking to the House Intelligence Committee Tuesday morning, and her interview continued for nine hours.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders refused to comment Tuesday on whether the White House had instructed Hicks to cooperate, noting she was “not going to comment on leaks.”
“We are cooperating because, as the president has said repeatedly, there is no collusion,” Sanders said. “We’re going to continue to cooperate, and hopefully, they will wrap this up soon.”
In the end, members of both parties said, Hicks answered all of their questions from the campaign period and “most” of their questions about the transition. But she answered none of their questions pertaining to the period since Trump took office, which meant that lawmakers were unable to secure her testimony regarding a key event in which she played a role: the drafting of a misleading statement to explain an unorthodox meeting at Trump Tower in Manhattan between top Trump campaign members and a Russian lawyer during the 2016 race.
“All of our questions about what went into that statement went unanswered,” Schiff said. “As a result, we should follow through with the subpoena.”
Hicks’s proximity to Trump and long history of working with the Trump family also make her testimony potentially valuable to the panel’s probe of Russian interference.
But Republican panel members seemed far less agitated by Hicks’s reluctance to answer questions than they were by Bannon’s. The committee is weighing whether to hold Bannon in contempt for his continued silence, under subpoena, when faced with questions that the Trump administration had not approved regarding the transition period.
Questions for Hicks about the transition period and the Trump White House “need to be hammered out by the majority, the minority and the White House,” panel member Rep. Thomas J. Rooney, R-Florida, said early Tuesday afternoon. He added that “it’s not really in my purview about what that agreement is, or was, or should be.”
On Monday, Rep. K. Michael Conaway of Texas, the top Republican on the House’s Russia probe, said he was not aware of any deal with Hicks that would limit the scope of the interview. He has also noted that he “would not be surprised” if Hicks refused to answer questions on topics she thought the president might later want to put off limits by invoking executive privilege, as Bannon and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have done.
Sessions has not faced official congressional censure. But several Republican and Democratic members of the House Intelligence Committee believe they must issue a contempt citation for Bannon to demonstrate to future witnesses that congressional subpoenas must be complied with. The decision depends on Conaway and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wisconsin, reaching an agreement, but the two have not yet met to discuss the issue, according to Conaway.
Hicks initially was expected to speak with the House panel last month, but her interview was canceled after the dramatic standoff with Bannon that resulted in his subpoena.
The panel is also grappling over what to do about former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. He initially said he was unprepared to answer the committee’s questions and needed more time, but he later informed the panel that he would not return to complete his interview.
Washington Post writer Anne Gearan contributed to this report.
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