With Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-NY) stepping back from his subpoena threats, acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker was able to avoid answering a number of key questions posed by Democrats at a committee hearing Friday.
The hearing had shaped up as potentially the first major confrontation between the new Democratic House majority and the Trump administration. At stake were the power of Congress to conduct oversight versus the president’s power to invoke executive privilege. More particularly, Democrats were prepared to home in on the independence of the Justice Department and special counsel Robert Mueller from White House interference and improper political considerations.
The day has not gone as anticipated.
Nadler made clear at the beginning of the hearing that he and Whitaker had come to an agreement for voluntary testimony that made subpoenaing him not necessary for the hearing.
Nadler indicated that he’d be requesting that Whitaker sit for a closed door deposition with the committee — which would release the transcript when practical — and asked that Whitaker commit to appearing for it.
Whitaker, however, did not answer that request, among other questions he avoided.
He instead pointed to committee protocol restricting the amount of time for each members’ question, as he tried to blow off that and another question Nadler asked about his oversight of Mueller’s probe.
“Mr. Chairman, I see that your five minutes is up,” Whitaker said, prompting gasps and laughter at the official’s tenacity in the face of a committee chairman.
Whitaker and Nadler have been at odds all week over Nadler’s desire to get him to answer certain questions about his White House communications regarding Mueller and other DOJ probes linked to President Trump. Whitaker on Friday declined to answer many of those questions — claiming he was reserving the right of Trump to invoke executive privilege, something the President hasn’t formally done yet. Though Nadler would not be subpoenaing him Friday, Whitaker’s dancing around that, as well as DOJ policy that it doesn’t comment on ongoing investigation, was a source of tension throughout the hearing, in question by both Democrats and Republicans.
Whitaker cited that DOJ policy in refusing to address comments he made when he was a pundit suggesting Mueller’s probe may be a “witch hunt.” He also said he had “nothing to add” about his claims at a press conference last month that Mueller was close to wrapping up.
Though he denied discussing with White House while he was private citizen his views on the Mueller probe — or using intermediaries to pass along that message — he refused to go into detail about any discussions he may have had with the President or his inner circle once he became acting attorney general. He did deny that that he has spoken to White House senior officials about the Mueller investigation.
“I have not interfered in any way with the special counsel’s investigation,” Whitaker said, as he claimed that under his watch the special counsel regulations had been followed “to a T.” He said he had not deprived the probe of any funding — an idea he floated as pundit as a way of starving the investigation.
Democrats were often frustrated with his refusal to answer his questions, particularly after he discussed in an exchange with Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA), the case against Roger Stone.
Collins had asked Whitaker about CNN’s presence at Stone’s house when he was arrested, churning up the conspiracy theory that the network was tipped off by investigators about his charges.
“I share your concern with the possibility that a media outlet was tipped off to Mr. Stone’s either indictments or arrest before it was made — that information was available to the public,” Whitaker said.
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