Acting Attorney General Matthew G. Whitaker locked horns with members of the House Judiciary Committee in a contentious hearing Friday morning that focused on Robert S. Mueller III’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and whether any officials from President Donald Trump’s campaign aided those efforts..
In a remarkable exchange between a ranking member of congress and a cabinet official testifying under oath, Whitaker took a swipe at committee chair Rep. Jerold Nadler (D-NY) when pressed on whether he’s been asked to approve or reject any actions by the special counsel.
“Now, in your capacity as acting attorney general, have you ever been asked to approve any request for action to be taken by the special counsel?” Nadler asked.
“Mr. Chairman, I see that your five minutes is up,” Whitaker responded, setting off audible disbelief around the chamber before Nadler called the committee back to order.
The acting attorney general did not spare his criticism solely for Democrats, taking ranking member Rep. Douglas Collins (R-GA) to task for a line of questioning about leaks and alleged anti-Trump bias that some Republicans believe has tainted — or even driven — Mueller’s team.
“This is an oversight hearing for the Department of Justice, and I am, I am surprised, as we’ve both had the chairman and the ranking member talk about what they want to talk about, that we haven’t talked anything about the work regarding violent crime,” Whitaker said, chiding both Collins and Nadler. “We haven’t talked about the opioid crisis. We haven’t talked about religious liberty. We haven’t talked about free speech on the college campuses, and whole host of other issues that I know are very important to you. And I look forward to talking about the substance of the work of the Department of Justice.”
The hearing went into recess so legislators could attend to votes on the House floor, but Democrats are expected to continue pressing Whitaker Friday afternoon about his decision to overrule career ethics officials at the Justice Department, who recommended that Whitaker recuse himself from overseeing Mueller’s team.
Trump publicly criticized Whitaker’s predecessor, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, for recusing himself in the earliest days of his administration. Some Democrats have speculated that Trump may have appointed Whitaker acting attorney general because of his previous public criticisms of the Mueller investigation — an allegation both Whitaker and the White House have denied.
Friday’s fireworks came after a showdown Thursday over whether Whitaker would testify at all. First, Whitaker said he would refuse to answer questions about his private conversations with Trump, citing possible executive privilege. When Nadler threatened to subpoena those answers, Whitaker said he would not testify as long as that threat stood.
Nadler finally backed down, sending Whitaker a letter Thursday night that took subpoenas off the table and cleared the way for Friday’s hearing.
“During my time as leader of the Department of Justice, the department has complied with special counsel regulations, and there’s been no change in how the department has worked with the Special Counsel’s Office,” Whitaker said in his opening remarks.
But he also preempted any questions about his conversations with Trump, citing “long-standing Executive Branch practice of not disclosing information that may be subject to executive privilege, such as the content of conversations with the president.”
Whitaker threaded the needle on executive privilege when Nadler pressed him on whether he has conveyed information about the special counsel investigation to Trump, reiterating that he would decline to answer questions about his conversations with Trump before saying flatly, “I have not talked to the president of the United State about the special counsel’s investigation.”
Tensions came to a head at the end of a long list of questions from Nadler, many of which Whitaker declined to answer directly. While Nadler declined to issue a subpoena, he said that the committee will call Whitaker back for a sworn deposition after he has had time to consult with the White House about whether Trump plans to invoke executive privilege — a decision that rests entirely with the president, not the attorney general.