Despite — or perhaps because of — a childhood in the land of strip malls and palm trees, I’ve always been taken with New England prep. Tarnished silver trophy cups, tweed coats with leather elbow patches, American flags. I’m basically a Ralph Lauren marketer’s dream.
That might be why former Trump White House aide Hope Hicks has long fascinated me. In a sea of beachy waves, Botoxed brows and brash voices, the Connecticut native (and former Ralph Lauren model) stood out, both for her longevity and indispensability within Trump’s inner circle as well as her more subdued public persona and personal style. Indeed, much like Jared Kushner, her influence — and ability to calm and control her principal — far exceeded her soundbites, which were practically nonexistent. (After Hicks announced her first departure from the White House, one media outlet even republished an audio interview of Hicks so Americans could hear the actual voice of Trump’s then-communications director.)
That Hicks plainly and repeatedly told Trump he lost is likely the reason why she sat for an interview with the House Jan. 6 committee.
Yet no matter how indelible the images of Hicks at Trump’s side — and I've thought about this one more times than I’d care to admit — and no matter how closely I follow Trump’s legal woes, until Tuesday morning, I had forgotten that Hicks returned to the White House in spring 2020 as a counselor to the president. At the time, The New York Times noted that Hicks would report to Kushner, work with then-White House political director Brian Jack, and take on “projects that Mr. Kushner oversees, including the re-election campaign.”
Indeed, Hicks remained at the White House through the 2020 election, departing the week after Jan. 6, 2021. And during her second White House tenure, Hicks was included in “numerous group texts” between then-White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, several Trump family members, then-Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien, and then-White House aides Stephen Miller and Dan Scavino, according to CNN.
Hicks also reportedly told Trump he had lost the election and that no one had convinced her otherwise, prompting Trump to complain to others that Hicks no longer believed in him.
That Hicks plainly and repeatedly told Trump he lost is likely the reason why she sat for an interview with the House Jan. 6 committee on Tuesday. It's not the first time she's been interviewed by a congressional committee.
During her first go-around at the White House, in late February 2018, Hicks testified before the then-GOP controlled House Intelligence Committee as it investigated Russian interference in the 2016 election. And even though she refused to discuss her time in the White House and would answer only limited questions about her work for the transition, she acknowledged that her role on the Trump campaign occasionally required her to tell "white lies" on Trump’s behalf. (Hicks announced her resignation from the White House the following day.)
In June 2019, Hicks also gave a transcribed interview to the House Judiciary Committee. At that time, Hicks was the first person within Trump’s inner circle to come before that committee as it investigated the White House’s alleged obstruction of then-special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia probe. And she was, at times, a helpful witness. For example, she noted that while she believed the hacked materials Wikileaks released in 2016 were “publicly available,” she was “very surprised” to learn about the extensive contacts between Russia and the Trump campaign, agreed with the intelligence community’s assessment that the Russians interfered with the 2016 election, and revealed she would not again accept “foreign oppo information from a foreign government” and would instead report an offer of such information to the FBI if credible.
Still, when Hicks was last before Congress in 2019, her former boss was still president, and his claims that senior aides like her had “absolute immunity” from congressional testimony were both backed by the Justice Department and enforced by White House lawyers, who invoked executive privilege to prevent her from answering questions on more than 150 occasions. The ground has shifted in the three-plus years since.
Democrats not only control the House, but also the White House, prompting Trump’s first White House counsel, Don McGahn, to give his own transcribed interview to the House Judiciary Committee about subjects both McGahn and Trump previously insisted were covered by executive privilege: the Mueller investigation and Trump’s attempted obstruction of the same.
Federal courts have found the incumbent president, and not his predecessor, has the right to say what is and is not within the bounds of executive privilege, at least where presidential records have been concerned. And despite Trump’s protest, the Supreme Court did not intervene to stop the National Archives from producing Trump White House records to the Jan. 6 committee.
Perhaps most significantly, two of the lawyers who most aggressively policed Trump’s executive privilege before and during her last interview — then-White House counsel Pat Cipollone and his deputy Pat Philbin — have themselves become witnesses before the Jan. 6 committee and/or a grand jury convened by the Justice Department. As The Washington Post observed earlier this month, Cipollone, in particular, “has emerged in several public accounts as a key witness to and critic of conversations held by Trump with others promoting plans to upend election results.”
CNN reported Tuesday that the Justice Department is seeking to compel both men to testify again about their advice to and interactions with Trump. The Justice Department has already obtained court orders to that effect with respect to former vice presidential aides Greg Jacob and Marc Short — both of whom went before the grand jury again this month. (Neither NBC News nor MSNBC has independently verified the report.)
Yet no matter how the latest battle over Cipollone and Philbin's grand jury testimony plays out, the committee already has evidence that multiple Trump aides and lawyers, among them Cipollone, former Attorney General William Barr, and even constitutional law professor-turned-campaign lawyer John Eastman, advised Trump that he lost and/or that his claims of election fraud were without basis.
Put another way, Hicks entered her interview this morning under different ground rules and expectations. And while she almost certainly came with personal counsel, she also had fewer protectors and legal obstacles to throw in the committee’s way. Will she therefore be a valuable witness, even as the committee’s public hearings have likely wrapped up?
Well, that all depends on the audacity — and veracity — of Hope.