Whitaker squares off with Democrats at fiery hearing
WASHINGTON — Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker faced a sharply divided congressional committee Friday, with Democrats pressing him on his relationship to President Donald Trump and oversight of the special counsel’s Russia investigation. Republicans, meanwhile, dismissed the hearing with the lame-duck attorney general as a political stunt and even moved to end it before it began.
“I’m thinking maybe we just set up a popcorn machine in the back,” said Rep. Doug Collins, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee.
Collins called the hearing a “dog and pony show” and criticized Democrats for disclosing derogatory information about Whitaker’s business dealings hours before the hearing.
Whitaker laid the groundwork for a likely tussle with Democrats by saying in his opening statement that while he would address their questions, he would not reveal details of his communications with the Republican president.
“I trust that the Members of this Committee will respect the confidentiality that is necessary to the proper functioning of the Presidency — just as we respect the confidentiality necessary to the Legislative Branch,” Whitaker said.
But in his first, and likely only, congressional hearing as the country’s chief law enforcement officer, he sought to assuage concerns from Democrats, who are newly in the majority and whose appointment they suspect was aimed at suppressing investigations of Trump. He told lawmakers that there has been no change since his arrival in the job in the “overall management” of special counsel’s Robert Mueller investigation. He said that he has run the Justice Department to the best of his ability, with “fidelity to the law and to the Constitution” and had never given any promises
Whitaker is likely in his final days as the country’s chief law enforcement officer because the Senate plans to vote soon on confirming William Barr, Trump’s pick for attorney general.
“There has been no change in the overall management of the Special Counsel investigation,” Whitaker will say, according to his prepared remarks. “I have and will continue to manage this investigation in a manner that is consistent with the governing regulations.”
Whitaker’s highly anticipated testimony Friday had been in limbo after the Democratic-led committee approved a tentative subpoena to ensure that he appeared and answered questions. Whitaker responded by saying that he would not come unless the committee dropped its subpoena threat, which he called an act of “political theater.”
The stalemate ended Thursday evening after the committee chairman, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said the committee would not issue a subpoena if Whitaker appeared voluntarily.
“In light of that commitment,” department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said in a statement, Whitaker looked forward to going to Capitol Hill and discussing “the great work” carried out by the department.
Democrats who perceive Whitaker as a Trump loyalist were expected to ask him whether he has made any commitments to the president about Mueller’s Russia investigation and whether he has shared with Trump any inside information. Also expected to come up was Whitaker’s comment last week that he believed the investigation into potential ties between Russia and the Trump campaign was nearly done.
Democrats said they would inquire about Whitaker’s past business dealings, too. Nadler and three other House committee chairmen released documents that they said show Whitaker failed to return thousands of dollars that were supposed to be distributed to victims of a company’s alleged fraud.
Whitaker has come under scrutiny for his involvement with the invention promotion company, which was accused of misleading consumers and has been under investigation by the FBI.
Whitaker had been chief of staff to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was forced from the Cabinet last November as Trump seethed over Sessions’ decision to step aside from overseeing the Russia investigation. Whitaker was an outspoken critic of the investigation before arriving at the Justice Department in 2017.
Trump insists there was “no collusion” between his campaign and Russia.