President Donald Trump’s lawyers have urged him not to discuss details of the unfolding Russia investigation with people outside his legal team, warning of a conversational “bright line” that could place aides and associates in legal jeopardy, according to current and former Trump aides.
But Trump often ignores that legal advice in the presence of senior aides — including his departing confidante and White House communications director, Hicks.
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“I think the president has put her in a very precarious position,” a senior Trump administration official said in a recent interview.
Hicks is not alone. Current and former Trump aides describe a president who often fails to observe boundaries about the Russia probe and who calls staffers into his office and raises the subject without warning.
Hicks in particular, Trump told her, could be “on both sides of the [bright] line.” As one of his longest-serving and most trusted aides, Hicks may have been subjected to an unwelcome amount of legally relevant comments from the president.
Speaking freely about an ongoing investigation is a major mistake, say veteran defense attorneys with White House experience.
“Every defense lawyer will advise his client don’t talk to people about the facts of the case. But when you work for the president and the president is not only constantly talking, but tweeting, I’m sure that’s doubly difficult,” said William Jeffress, a Washington attorney who represented former President Richard M. Nixon after his resignation and former George W. Bush White House senior aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby.
That concept is not lost on White House officials. “People are afraid to talk to each other,” Anthony Scaramucci, who served a brief stint as White House communications director before Hicks, told CNN on Thursday.
But there is little they can do about a president both consumed by allegations against him and resistant to advice about what subjects he should avoid discussing.
The problem is especially acute for Hicks and other aides subjected to Trump’s venting given special counsel Robert Mueller’s known interest in whether Trump has sought to obstruct justice from within the White House.
Hicks’ exit from the White House in the coming weeks will hardly immunize her from legal headaches. But it will spare her from “learning more things on the inside that could potentially lead to a second or third visit to the special counsel’s office and higher legal bills,” as one former Trump aide put it.
The former Trump aide, who experienced firsthand the lack of discipline in the president’s discussions about Russia matters, said the situation stemmed in part from the unique nature of a White House that “runs on personal access and loyalty.”
“Part of the problem in this White House is you have, every day, people who engage in matters concerning this investigation,” the source said. “That is problematic, because not only does it distract from the work that taxpayers are paying them to do, but it also in certain instances can make them witnesses or potentially targets of the investigation. That’s really dangerous.”
A nightmare scenario for a White House staffer might resemble the saga of Bettie Currie, a personal secretary to former President Bill Clinton. Amid an investigation into his affair with Monica Lewinsky, Clinton had a private 1998 conversation with Currie about her memories of his contacts with the White House intern — a talk that prosecutors suspected was an effort at illegal witness manipulation. Currie denied that Clinton had coached her, but later said that “[d]espite my telling them over and over and over again … they didn’t believe me.”
Hicks, by virtue of her longtime close relationship with Trump, has already become a significant figure in the multiple probes into Russian election meddling and alleged Kremlin influence over Trump’s campaign. She met in December with special counsel Robert Mueller and spent nearly nine hours testifying before the House Intelligence Committee on Tuesday. Hicks has also appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Hicks is known to have been present or involved in several key episodes of interest to federal Russia investigators. Mueller has questioned her about a meeting on Air Force One as Trump returned from a July trip to Europe, in which Trump, his aides and family members crafted a misleading statement about a June 2016 Trump Tower meeting organized by his son, Donald Trump Jr., with a Russian lawyer offering dirt on Hillary Clinton.
She was also with Trump in March 2016 when he first announced that Carter Page and George Papadopoulos were joining his campaign foreign policy team; both men have since become focal points of the current Mueller and congressional investigations.
Hicks was on email chains involving Page as he ran an invitation to speak in Moscow up the campaign’s chain of command. She fielded media inquiries for Paul Manafort, who at the time was the campaign’s chairman, about his ties to Oleg Deripaska, a Russian aluminum magnate and ally to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Serving in Trump’s White House inner circle also meant Hicks was with the president in Bedminster, New Jersey, during the early May 2017 weekend when he decided to fire FBI Director James Comey — a move that triggered Mueller’s investigation and has put Trump under the special counsel’s scrutiny for potential obstruction of justice
The Washington Post reported last fall that Hicks was also with the president in the Oval Office a day before Comey’s ouster, during a discussion about a letter drafted by aide Stephen Miller that spelled out the president’s reasons for firing the FBI chief. She was the only Trump aide present during a July interview Trump gave The New York Times in which he described his anger that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had recused himself from the Russia probe — another potential component of an obstruction of justice case.
White House aides and a friend of Hicks on Wednesday insisted her departure isn’t connected solely to the Russia probe, noting it had been under discussion for weeks.
“She’ll be incredibly difficult to replace,” said White House attorney Ty Cobb, who has been serving as the official point man for the president’s response to the Russia probe. “She couldn’t have been a more supportive or talented ally to me.”
Still, the timing of her exit announcement — the day after her House testimony, during which she reportedly acknowledged telling small lies to cover for the president — stirred suspicion.
Even after she surrenders her White House badge, Hicks might not be finished speaking to federal investigators. Former senior White House aides Reince Priebus, Steve Bannon and Sean Spicer have all met with Mueller’s team since their White House departures. And Mark Corallo, a former spokesman for Trump’s legal team, met with Mueller last month.
“It’s so easy to get caught up in these things even if you have nothing substantive to do with decisions,” said Adam Goldberg, a Bill Clinton White House lawyer who handled crisis communications during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
“Just being on a phone call, even if you might disagree with everyone, that’s a one-way ticket to the grand jury,” Goldberg added.