By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Hope Hicks, a close aide to President Donald Trump, declined to answer questions about the administration on Tuesday from members of the U.S. House of Representatives Intelligence Committee investigating Russia and the 2016 U.S. election, lawmakers said.
Hicks, the White House communications director, was Trump’s spokeswoman during the 2016 election campaign.
The president seemed to defend her shortly before her House appearance, taking to Twitter early on Tuesday to say: “WITCH HUNT,” a phrase he has used in the past to describe the Russia investigations.
Hicks answered every question lawmakers asked about her time with the campaign, and most about the transition, the months between Trump’s victory in November 2016 and his January 2017 inauguration, Republican and Democratic committee members said.
But she refused to discuss her role in the administration, including her part in drafting a statement in July 2017 misrepresenting a July 2016 meeting at Trump Tower that included the president’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., other Trump associates and Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Russian official.
Trump Jr. said initially the meeting was about adoptions, but said later that Veselnitskaya had promised damaging information about his father’s presidential opponent, Democrat Hillary Clinton.
That meeting has been a focus of investigations by House Intelligence and two other congressional committees.
Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller is also probing the issue. On Friday, Rick Gates, a former senior Trump campaign official who is cooperating with Mueller’s investigation, pleaded guilty to charges including conspiracy against the United States.
Other Trump associates, such as former White House adviser Steve Bannon, also have declined to answer House intelligence panel questions about their time in the White House, citing White House orders.
“This is not executive privilege, this is executive stonewalling,” Representative Adam Schiff, the committee’s top Democrat, told reporters after Hicks’ testimony.
He said Hicks declined to say whether she had refused to answer the same questions from Mueller’s team.
Schiff said committee Democrats wanted Hicks to be subpoenaed, but Republicans refused. Trump’s fellow Republicans have majorities in both houses of Congress, and thus control the congressional investigations.
Republicans agreed to on-the-spot subpoenas of Bannon during his testimony, and Schiff expressed frustration with the difference.
Representative Thomas Rooney, a Republican leader of the committee’s Russia probe, told reporters he thought Hicks had been “very forthright” when she answered questions.
He said he did not think Hicks should be subpoenaed.
Hicks arrived about 10 a.m. for a closed-door session with the panel. She left around 7 p.m. The committee is investigating allegations that Russia sought to interfere in 2016 to boost Trump, and whether his associates colluded with Russia.
Hicks did not speak to reporters.
Trump has repeatedly denied collusion with Russia, and Moscow has denied attempting to meddle in the U.S. campaign.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders declined to discuss Hicks’ refusal to respond to some questions, telling reporters the White House would not comment on any individual’s interactions with the intelligence committee.
(Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Phil Berlowitz and Peter Cooney)