Trump ignored ‘bright line’ on discussing Russia with Hicks
President Donald Trump’s lawyers have urged him not to discuss details of the unfolding Russia investigation with anyone outside his legal team, warning of a conversational “bright line” that could put 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, Hope Hicks.
Story Continued Below
“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 I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, former senior aide under President George W. Bush.
That concept is not lost on White House officials. “People are afraid to talk to each other,” Anthony Scaramucci, who served a very 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 with 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 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.”