Next up in House Russia probe parade: Hope Hicks
Will she or won’t she? Hope Hicks has been part of Donald Trump’s team since he first starting putting his team together in early 2015. Hicks made herself indispensable on the campaign trail and eventually in the White House as well, taking on the formal role of communications director last September but has been a member of the inner circle for far longer.
That status has drawn the attention of House investigators probing Russian interference in the election. Hicks will talk with Intel Committee investigators in private today, but the Washington Post warns readers that she may not have much to say without Trump’s permission:
Hope Hicks, one of President Trump’s closest aides and advisers, is scheduled to speak behind closed doors Tuesday with the House Intelligence Committee in a meeting lawmakers fear could deepen their standoff with the White House over witnesses refusing to answer questions.
Rep. K. Michael Conaway (R-Texas), who is running the panel’s Russia investigation, said in an interview Monday that he “would not be surprised” if Hicks followed the example of other close Trump aides and advisers who have simply refused to answer certain questions, arguing that the president might want to invoke executive privilege at some point in the future.
Conaway shouldn’t be surprised by this, because executive privilege is a legitimate exercise of the office, absent the commission of any crimes. So far, no crimes have been publicly alleged or even suggested, other than the oft-bandied term of “collusion” and some allegations of obstruction of justice related to the firing of James Comey. However, there is a very serious issue with charging obstruction for a lawful exercise of the office, and presidents have the authority to fire FBI directors.
However, that’s not what interests the investigators. They want to ask Hicks about … a press release:
Hicks currently works as the White House communications director, but her proximity to Trump and long history of working with the Trump family make her testimony potentially valuable to the panel’s ongoing probe of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections. In particular, Hicks is likely to face questions about a statement she helped draft on Air Force One addressing a June 2016 meeting that the president’s son Donald Trump Jr., his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and then-campaign manager Paul Manafort held with a Russian lawyer in Trump Tower. The misleading statement has raised questions about whether there was a deliberate attempt to obstruct justice surrounding the meeting.
Not to overquote Andy McCarthy, but the premise behind this theory is absurd. If issuing misleading press releases constituted obstruction of justice, then we might as well put bars around the Capitol building and hire wardens for both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. The clumsy and ill-advised press release that followed the exposure of the highly foolish meeting in the Trump Tower certainly is fodder for political criticism, much of it well-founded, but it’s not testimony. Nor is it a statement to investigators in a legal sense, where obstruction could be charged. Hauling Hicks before the committee’s investigators looks more like an attempt to exploit it into a political beating for Trump in the guise of an investigation.
Investigators may well be curious about the inner workings of the White House. That doesn’t give them carte blanche to intrude on executive discussions and advice unless they have a specific crime to investigate and reasonable cause to suspect that a conspiracy to further that crime took place during those specific discussions. Congress has looser rules on this than law enforcement does, but then again, the White House as a separate branch of government can also choose not to cooperate with Congress if they push too far outside the norms.
That has been the pattern in this investigation, which has prompted some in Congress to demand contempt charges for former aide Stephen Bannon. That’s certainly a point of leverage that Congress can use to push for cooperation, but it’s not likely to mean much. Just ask Eric Holder how a contempt charge from Congress impacted his life.
Overall, this seems like a very weak thread to pull. If there’s something to be had on that track, why not have Robert Mueller pull it instead? The consequences for potential witnesses are more dire in that direction, although Mueller has the same hurdles to overcome as Congress when it comes to executive privilege. Note well that while Mueller has thrown the book at another of the Trump Tower meeting attendee, Paul Manafort, none of the charges have anything to do with the campaign, let alone the meeting with Natalia Veselnitskaya.
If there’s a charge that will come out of the Trump Tower meeting, it won’t rise or fall on Hope Hicks’ wordsmithing of a press release months afterward — and absent a charge from the meeting itself, there seems to be little reason to discuss the press release at all. Except, of course, to remind everyone of how foolish it was to take that meeting at all, and then also to try to pretty it up with a misleading statement that was easily rebutted. And we can discuss those failings without Hicks’ testimony anyway.