WASHINGTON, D.C. — Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker repeatedly clashed with Democrats in a combative hearing Friday in which he told lawmakers he has not interfered with the special counsel investigation that he oversees.
Whitaker testified that he has not discussed the probe with President Donald Trump nor denied funding for it, as Democrats pressed him on everything from his conversations with the President and other White House officials to his decision not to recuse himself from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
Facing off with Democrats in his first and likely only congressional testimony while leading the Justice Department, Whitaker was often defiant in responding to their questions, at one point cutting off Chairman Jerry Nadler to note the chairman’s allotted time was up, drawing the scoffs of astonished members of Congress.
Whitaker and Nadler, a New York Democrat, sparred over whether Whitaker could answer questions about his private conversations with senior White House officials and the President, but the acting attorney general made an exception to say he did not discuss the Mueller probe with them.
“We have followed the special counsel’s regulations to a T,” Whitaker said. “There has been no decision that has required me to take any action, and I have not interfered with the special counsel’s investigation in any way.”
Whitaker testified following a lengthy fight with Nadler over the prospect that he would be subpoenaed for not answering questions.
Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the committee’s top Republican, criticized the hearing as “pure political theater” and a “dog and pony show.”
“Bring your popcorn,” he said.
For weeks, Democrats on the committee hoped they would get the chance to question Whitaker about his views on Mueller’s investigation, any actions Whitaker has taken related to the probe and his decision not to recuse from the investigation after Justice Department ethics officials recommended he do so.
“In my view, your conduct, Mr. Whitaker — including your decision to ignore important ethics advice when you became acting attorney general, no matter the consequences — your conduct, sir, falls well short of the mark,” Nadler said.
In his prepared opening statement, Whitaker said he intended to protect executive privilege involving his “deliberations or conversations” with the President, citing “long-standing executive branch policy.”
Democrats clash with Whitaker
Democrats on the Judiciary Committee grew frustrated with Whitaker’s approach to answering their questions — or, in their view, failure to answer them — and Nadler threatened to haul Whitaker back in for a deposition under subpoena because he wouldn’t answer their questions.
Democrats pushed Whitaker on whether he was still critical of the special counsel investigation he is now in charge of. Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee got into a testy exchange with the acting attorney general about whether the Mueller investigation was a “witch hunt” — one of the President’s signature insults.
“But you wouldn’t oversee a witch hunt, would you? You’d stop a witch hunt, wouldn’t you?” Cohen shot back.
A number of law enforcement officials, including FBI Director Christopher Wray, have disputed the “witch hunt” label. William Barr, who is likely to be confirmed as attorney general next week, also testified last month that he believed Mueller was not on a witch hunt.
Last month, Whitaker publicly said that the Mueller probe is “close to being completed.” On Friday, he did not elaborate on his comment, but did note that the Department of Justice had not received Mueller’s report.
The acting attorney general said that Mueller was would finish the probe “when he wants to finish his investigation.”
He was asked whether he thought the special counsel was honest.
“I have no reason to believe he’s not honest, so yes I do believe he’s honest,” Whitaker said.
He was also pushed to explain his decision not to recuse himself from the Mueller investigation.
Whitaker responded that he had been told by ethics officials that “the decision was mine to make based on the regulations of the Department of Justice, and I made that decision and I stand by that decision.”
Republicans also press Whitaker for info
Republicans repeatedly tried to divert the discussion from the topic of the special counsel, instead trying to focus on other functions of the Justice Department. When they did ask questions about the investigation, Republicans asked whether it had strayed from the pursuit of possible crimes to targeting individuals, and whether key Justice Department officials were biased in the investigation.
Rep. Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican, asked Whitaker to explain what was in the “scoping memo” that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein wrote about the Mueller investigation in August 2017.
Jordan and conservative Republicans have sought unsuccessfully to gain access to the mostly redacted three-page memo that lays out the parameters of the special counsel’s investigation.
Whitaker said he’d read the memo. But when Jordan asked him whether specific names were in the document — which Jordan charged would go against Justice Department policy — Whitaker demurred.
Under questioning from Rep. Andy Biggs, an Arizona Republican, Whitaker said that he believed Rosenstein was not serious when he discussed wearing a wire to secretly record Trump in order to sway members of his Cabinet and remove the President from office in spring 2017, in the days after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey. But Whitaker declined to say if he had discussed with Rosenstein the deputy attorney general’s comments about invoking the 25th Amendment in an effort to trigger Trump’s removal from office.
Fighting before the hearing begins
It was unclear whether Whitaker would even show up until late Thursday night after weeks of disputes between the Department of Justice and the House Judiciary committee.
In January, Nadler threatened to issue a subpoena to Whitaker for his testimony if he did not agree to appear, saying that Whitaker was backtracking on a previous promise to testify in the first month of the new Congress. The committee and Justice Department eventually agreed he would voluntarily appear on February 8.
But this week, Nadler and the Department of Justice fought in a series of letters released to the public, as Democrats voted to give Nadler the power to subpoena Whitaker should he not appear or refuse to answer the committee’s questions. Whitaker eventually agreed to testify when Nadler said late Thursday night that he would not use subpoena him to compel his testimony on Friday.
Since Whitaker was tapped to replace Jeff Sessions in November as acting attorney general, he has been under fire from Democrats for his public comments criticizing the special counsel’s investigation.
Democrats demanded he recuse himself, and have called for an investigation into his decision not to recuse despite the recommendation from DOJ ethics officials. But Whitaker has not appeared to take any actions with regard to the Mueller investigation, and he’s left the day-to-day supervision to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who was supervising the probe when Sessions was attorney general and recused himself.
Ahead of the hearing, four Democratic House committee chairmen accused Whitaker of not repaying over $9,000 in funds to a now-shuttered, “scam” patent company he was involved with so that the money can be returned to victims, an issue that Democrats are likely to raise on Friday.
“We have obtained new documents showing that you failed to return thousands of dollars that were supposed to be distributed to the victims of World Patent Marketing’s alleged fraud, despite your involvement…in handling complaints from individuals of the company’s actions,” four House committee chairman wrote in a letter to Whitaker dated Thursday. Collins said Friday the Democrats’ move was part of a “character assassination.”