House Democrats demand Hope Hicks clarify testimony after Cohen document dump
The House Judiciary Committee on Thursday demanded Hope Hicks return for a second round of questioning within the next month to clarify what it described as "inconsistent" testimony she gave about Donald Trump's hush-money payments to an adult film actress.
Democratic panel chairman Jerry Nadler in a five-page letter cited newly released court documents that raise questions about whether the former White House communications director and longtime Trump aide misled his panel about her role in the scheme during a closed-door interview last month.
"As I reminded you at the outset of your interview, anything other than complete candor can have very serious consequences," Nadler said in the letter to Hicks, which set an August 15 deadline for her to voluntarily return for additional questioning otherwise he'd issue a subpoena.
At issue is testimony Hicks gave in June before Nadler's panel about what she knew concerning the payments made to the actress, Stormy Daniels, in a bid to silence her story before Election Day 2016.
Hicks told the committee she had no direct knowledge of the payments and that she didn't have any contact during the presidential campaign with several of the key participants, including Keith Davidson, a lawyer for Daniels, and executives at American Media, Inc., the parent organization of the National Enquirer that was planning to buy the actress's story to bury it.
She also told the House panel that she was never present for discussions about the issue involving Trump and Michael Cohen, the Trump attorney who is now serving a three-year prison sentence in part for his role in violating campaign finance laws tied to the payments to Daniels.
In his letter to Hicks, Nadler said her testimony on each of her statements dealing with the issue "appears to be inconsistent with the evidence" released earlier Thursday in newly unsealed portions of the FBI's search warrants on Cohen.
One example Nadler cited from the search warrant involves an early October 2016 phone call between Hicks, Trump and Cohen as the presidential candidate and his attorney were beginning negotiations on a deal to try and keep Daniels from going public with the allegations about an affair with Trump.
According to the document, Hicks called Cohen on Oct. 8, 2016. Sixteen seconds later, Trump himself was dialed into the call, which continued for over four minutes. The FBI agent said it was the first call Cohen had received or made to Hicks in at least multiple weeks, and Cohen and Trump had spoken only about once a month prior to that.
Cohen and Hicks then spoke again for about two minutes after the call with Trump ended.
Several other examples of Hicks' involvement are also in the court records released Thursday, including testimony from an FBI agent who said she was part of a series of calls, text messages and emails about the payments to Daniels with Trump, Cohen, Davidson and the American Media executives, David Pecker and Dylan Howard.
Chronological accounts from the FBI agents also describe Hicks communicating with the same group of people about the Daniels payments, as well as their anticipation of a separate Wall Street Journal story that was about to publish that detailed another alleged Trump affair with Karen McDougal, a Playboy model that the National Enquirer had also paid $150,000 to bury her story.
Hicks’ participation in all of those moments, coming as Trump’s campaign was scrambling to bury the women's stories in the final weeks of a tumultuous 2016 presidential race, puts her in an awkward spot to explain her closed-door congressional testimony last month.
In that private interview, Hicks gave a categorical denial to Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) when she asked whether Hicks was ever present when Trump and Cohen had discussed Daniels.
“No, ma’am,” Hicks replied.
“You were never present when they discussed Stormy Daniels?” Jackson Lee asked again, according to a transcript released by the panel.
No,” Hicks answered.
Jackson Lee then pressed a third time. “I’m going to say it again. Were you ever present when Trump and Mr. Cohen discussed Stormy Daniels, since it was all over the news that that occurred?” the lawmaker asked.
After a White House attorney, Patrick Philbin, interjected to ensure the question to Hicks was focused only on her time on the Trump campaign, Hicks again replied, “So, no is my answer.”
Also in the interview, Tennessee Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen asked Hicks directly if she had "no knowledge - any information about hush money payments to Ms. Stormy Daniels. How about to Ms. - was it - McDougal, Miss August?"
Hicks replied, "I wasn't aware of anything. I wasn't aware of a hush payment agreement."
She also testified that she didn't have "any direct knowledge" about the payments made to Daniels during the campaign.
Asked when she learned about the payments to the actress, Hicks replied in questioning from the committee's lawyers that she did not recall speaking to Cohen about the Daniels episode "other than to relay what the reporter said to me, that she would be mentioned in [a] story, but there was no additional context."
"I know the president had conversations with Michael separate from me, so it's possible it was part of those. I don't recall being part of those conversations," Hicks added.
Hicks’ responses to the House committee also appears to conflict with what an FBI special agent wrote in support of the bureau’s request for search warrants of Cohen’s home, office and hotel room. In a footnote about the Trump-Cohen-Hicks call, the agent described a conversation with another official from the bureau who had interviewed Hicks.
“I have learned that Hicks stated, in substance, that to the best of her recollection, she did not learn about the allegations made by [Daniels] until early November 2016,” the agent wrote. “Hicks was not specifically asked about this three-way call.”
On Friday, Robert Trout, a lawyer for Hicks, issued a statement addressing the testimony.
“Reports claiming that Ms. Hicks was involved in conversations about 'hush money' payments on October 8, 2016, or knew that payments were being discussed, are simply wrong," Trout said. "Ms. Hicks stands by her truthful testimony that she first became aware of this issue in early November 2016, as the result of press inquiries, and she will be responding formally to Chairman Nadler’s letter as requested.”
The new questions about Hicks’ testimony come as some in Trump’s orbit are starting to breathe a little easier. Audrey Strauss, lead U.S. attorney in New York handling Cohen’s case, sent a letter to a federal judge earlier this week that the government’s probe had concluded into who else might be criminally liable for the campaign finance violations to which Cohen pleaded guilty.
Strauss also said the Manhattan-based investigation into whether anyone else gave false statements or obstructed justice is over.
While the New York-based federal prosecutor made no mention about additional charges, several legal experts told POLITICO on Wednesday that the government’s confirmation that it has closed its investigation suggests no one else from the Trump Organization faces legal liability.
“Case closed,” Trump personal attorney Jay Sekulow said in a text message to POLITICO on Thursday.
But others aren’t so sure Hicks is in the clear.
"Looks like Hope Hicks lied during Congressional investigation when we at @HouseJudiciary interviewed her," tweeted Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), who sits on the judiciary panel. "That's two felonies: Perjury & Obstruction of Justice. Hicks consulted with lawyers throughout her interview. Did @TheJusticeDept or @WhiteHouse lawyers know she was lying?"
Added Bradley Moss, a Washington-based national security attorney, “I’m going to be surprised if there isn’t a 1001 violation referral for Hope Hicks by the end of tomorrow. It appears rather clear she lied to Congress about the Stormy Daniels saga.” He was referring to the federal statute prohibiting material false statements.