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 law-enforcement decisions are “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.
Whitaker also told the chairman, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said he had not talked to the president or senior White House officials about Mueller’s investigation during his three months in charge of the Justice Department.
Whitaker clashed from the start with Nadler. Whitaker noted at one point that Nadler’s five minutes had expired before one of his answers.
“I have not talked to the president of the United States about the special counsel,” Whitaker said earlier. “I have not talked about the special counsel’s investigation with senior White House officials.”
But Whitaker also warned lawmakers that he would not tell them about conversations with Trump, a decision likely to frustrate House Democrats eager to know whether the White House had sought to interfere in the criminal investigations surrounding the president. Whitaker had publicly criticized the special counsel investigation before he came to the Justice Department.
Nadler seized on Whitaker’s intention to not respond to questions about his communications with the president and his decision not to recuse himself from the Russia investigation.
“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.
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.”
Whitaker assured lawmakers he was committed to the Justice Department’s integrity and that law-enforcement decisions are based on the facts of each case “independent of any outside interference.”
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!”
Whitaker volunteered to testify in what was likely to become his only appearance before Congress because the Senate could move as early as next week to confirm his permanent replacement, William Barr. The 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.
Lawmakers hope to press Whitaker on his oversight of Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, and a separate inquiry into illegal payments to hide possible sex scandals in the final months of Trump’s campaign.
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.”
Friday’s hearing promised to be the only chance Congress would get to question Whitaker, whom Trump named as acting attorney general after ousting then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions in November.
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.
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.
Read or Share this story: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2019/02/08/acting-attorney-general-matthew-whitaker-testify-house-robert-mueller/2805383002/