WASHINGTON – Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker told a House panel Friday that he hadn’t interfered with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation and that his handling of the case had been “independent of any outside interference.”
“I have not interfered in any way with the special counsel’s investigation,” Whitaker told the House Judiciary Committee during a combative hearing in which lawmakers pressed him for details on his handling of the criminal investigations surrounding President Donald Trump.
The reply answered what had been an open question during Whitaker’s three months leading a Justice Department that is conducting tandem criminal investigations surrounding the president. Whitaker is a close ally of Trump and they have suggested he might have been chosen for the job because he had publicly criticized Mueller’s probe before being put in a position to lead it.
In sworn testimony on Friday, Whitaker said he had “not talked to the president of the United States about the special counsel.” He said he had not discussed it with any other senior White House officials. And he suggested to the committee’s chairman, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., that he had not stepped in to thwart any of the steps Mueller planned to take in his investigation.
So far, Whitaker said, “there has been no event – no decision – that has required me to take any action” in the case.
Still, Whitaker told lawmakers that he would not give them any more detail about his conversations with Trump, a decision that frustrated House Democrats eager to know whether the White House had sought to interfere in the investigations centered on the president.
“Your failure to respond fully to our questions here today in no way limits the ability of this committee to get answers in the long run, even if you are a private citizen when we finally learn the truth,” Nadler said.
Background: Who is Matthew Whitaker? Hawkeye football star and federal prosecutor becomes acting attorney general
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Whitaker said in his statement that he would “seek to answer the committee’s questions today, as best as I can, but I also must make clear that I will continue the longstanding executive branch policy and practice of not disclosing information that may be subject to executive privilege, such as the contents of deliberations or conversations with the president.”
Democrats appeared unpersuaded. Nadler criticized Whitaker’s disregard for a recommendation from Justice ethics officials to recuse himself from the Russia inquiry.
“Your conduct, sir, falls well short of the mark,” Nadler said.
Republicans criticized the hearing as “political theater.”
“This is nothing more than an exercise in character assassination,” said Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on the committee. “No, ‘we want to damage the president.’ That’s offensive!”
The much-anticipated confrontation between Whitaker and new Democratic leadership of the House lived up to its billing right from the start as the acting attorney general appeared ready to challenge lawmakers who sought information about Whitaker’s communications with the president and his oversight of the Russia investigation.
As Nadler continued to press Whitaker for answers, the witness cut off the chairman, saying: “Mr. Chairman, I see that your five minutes are up.”
The comment prompted a roar of laughter through the hearing room gallery, taking even Nadler by surprise.
But Whitaker wasn’t finished.
Before an early break in the hearing, a combative Whitaker urged members to address “the real work” of the Justice Department, referring to the lawmakers’ intense focus on the special counsel’s investigation.
“We haven’t talked about the work related to violent crime,” Whitaker told the panel. “I look forward to talking about the substance of the work at the Department of Justice.”
Collins, however, warned the witness to prepare for “a long day.”
“If you have been watching TV recently, you know what this is going to be about,” Collins said.
Clearly unsatisfied with Whitaker’s refusal to more fully discuss his communications with the president and his oversight of the Mueller investigation, Nadler said he was planning to re-call Whitaker at another date for a deposition where he would be questioned further.
The Senate could move as early as next week to confirm his permanent replacement, William Barr.
Whitaker’s appearance followed negotiations Thursday, after the committee authorized a subpoena for his testimony that Whitaker argued was unnecessary. But Nadler opened the hearing saying a subpoena wouldn’t be issued Friday.
Investigations by several committees are a main source of friction between the White House and Democrats who took control of the House of Representatives in January. Trump used his State of the Union speech Tuesday to criticize “ridiculous partisan investigations.” But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called the statement a threat and said lawmakers would be delinquent if they didn’t conduct oversight investigations.
Nadler provided Whitaker with questions in a Jan. 22 letter that covered his decision not to recuse himself from overseeing Mueller’s investigation, whether Whitaker had passed along information from Mueller briefings to Trump and what Trump said after the convictions of former aides.
Trump, who has called Mueller’s probe a “witch hunt,” supported Whitaker on Thursday.
“I would say, if he did testify, he’d do very well,” Trump said. “He’s an outstanding person. A very, very fine man.”
Whitaker has been a polarizing figure at the Justice Department because he had served as chief of staff to Sessions, a position that hadn’t required Senate confirmation.
Not long after he took the job, Whitaker said he disregarded advice from the department’s career ethics lawyers that he disqualify himself from overseeing the Russia investigation because of comments he’d made before joining the department that questioned the inquiry and suggested it could be starved of funding.
Whitaker said last month that the investigation was “close to being completed,” the first time anyone familiar with its inner workings had offered even a hint in public of its likely trajectory. He did not elaborate.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., asked Whitaker whether he shared his “harsh criticism” of the Mueller probe with Trump, his relatives or White House officials before he joined the department.
“No, I did not,” Whitaker said, after Nadler accused him of “filibustering” his answer by describing the honor of working for Sessions.
If Mueller’s work is nearing its end, it’s giving outward signs of an investigation still gathering evidence.
Lawyers for the special counsel are fighting two cases in which witnesses have defied orders to testify before Mueller’s grand jury. One, involving an unnamed company owned by a foreign government, awaits review in the Supreme Court.
The lawyers confirmed in a court filing that Rick Gates, Trump’s former deputy campaign chairman who pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy and lying to investigators, “continues to cooperate with respect to several ongoing investigations.” Prosecutors and Gates’ lawyers said it will be at least mid-March before they’re ready to set a date for him to be sentenced.
Two weeks ago, FBI agents gathered troves of electronics and other materials from the home, apartment and office of longtime Trump confidant Roger Stone, whom they charged with lying to Congress. Prosecutors said they seized so much information that they might not be ready to bring him to trial until October.
“From what we can see, I’m skeptical that he’s close to wrapping up,” said Randall Eliason, a George Washington University law professor and former federal prosecutor.
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