WASHINGTON — Matthew Whitaker, in his first and likely last appearance before Congress as acting attorney general, sparred for hours Friday with Democrats who sternly warned him not to impede special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign.
Whitaker, who took command of the Justice Department in November and is likely to leave the job next week with the expected confirmation of William P. Barr to serve as attorney general, told members of the House Judiciary Committee that he had not influenced Mueller’s probe in any way, and had not spoken to President Trump about the investigation since his appointment.
In a series of chippy exchanges with Democrats who questioned his credentials, judgment and integrity, Whitaker appeared to aggravate lawmakers when he refused to disagree with the president’s characterization of Mueller’s probe as a “witch hunt.”
“It would be inappropriate for me to talk about an ongoing investigation,” Whitaker said several times when asked if he thought Mueller’s work matched that description.
Generally, senior law enforcement officials have denied Mueller’s probe is a witch hunt, and Democrats responded aggressively after Whitaker’s refusal to do the same.
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., called the special counsel’s work an important national security investigation, saying “the fact that people suggest otherwise comes dangerously close to providing aid and comfort to the enemy.” Jeffries then urged Whitaker not to try to steer the case in his remaining days on the job.
“Keep your hands off the Mueller investigation,” Jeffries said.
From the hearing’s opening minutes, Whitaker was pressed by Democrats to explain his role in overseeing Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign. He made clear at the outset that he would not talk about his conversations with Trump - which led quickly to a contentious exchange with the committee’s chairman, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y.
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“There has been no change in the overall management of the special counsel investigation,” Whitaker said in his prepared remarks. “I have and will continue to manage this investigation in a manner that is consistent with the governing regulations.”
Nadler repeatedly pressed Whitaker to explain what he has been told about the special counsel investigation, and what he has told others.
“I have not talked to the president of the United States about the special counsel’s investigation,” Whitaker said, adding that he also hasn’t talked to White House officials about the inquiry. Whitaker would not say when or how often he has been briefed on that investigation.
As Nadler kept insisting Whitaker say whether he had approved investigative steps taken by Mueller, the acting attorney general tried to dodge the question.
“Mr. Chairman, I see that your five minutes is up,” Whitaker said, prompting laughter in the hearing room, as the witness tried to turn the tables on his inquisitor. In congressional hearings, committee chairman control the time for questions, not other lawmakers or the witnesses.
Eventually, Whitaker relented and answered Nadler’s question.
“We have followed the special counsel’s regulations to a ‘T.’ There has been no event, no decision, that has required me to take any action, and I have not interfered in any way with the special counsel’s investigation,” Whitaker said.
The committee’s top Republican, Rep. Douglas Collins of Georgia said the hearing “was nothing more than character assassination,” and accused Democrats of political grandstanding. “This hearing is pointless!” he said.
Whitaker sparred almost continuously with Democrats on the panel over the special counsel investigation involving the president, while Republicans mostly asked him about administration policy.
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Under intense questioning about his interactions with Trump, Whitaker denied a media report that the president once berated him after Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty and implicated the president.
“No, he did not,” Whitaker answered after several attempts to dodge the question. He also said no one speaking on behalf of the president had berated him either.
But under aggressive questioning from Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., Whitaker notably declined to say whether he had ever talked with Trump about the Cohen case or the federal prosecutors in Manhattan who handled it.
“I am not going to discuss my private conversations with the president of the United States. No matter what the question is,” Whitaker said.
At one point, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, snapped at Whitaker when he made a casual remark about the time in the hearing.
“Mr. Attorney General, we’re not joking here, and your humor is not acceptable,” said Jackson Lee.
Whitaker sought to clarify that when he said last month that Mueller’s probe was “close to being completed,” he was not necessarily speaking for Mueller, who was “going to finish his investigation when he wants to finish his investigation.”
“That position that I mentioned last week in a press conference was my position as acting attorney general,” Whitaker said.
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He also revealed new details about his discussions to serve as a White House attorney, potentially putting him opposite the Justice Depratment, handling the response to the Russia probe. He said he talked about the position with then-White House Counsel Donald McGahn’s chief of staff, but they mainly discussed Whitaker’s background and experience and steered clear of topics specific to Mueller’s inquiry.
“They did not want to talk about the investigation because the folks were dealing with that investigation, and that’s why they wanted someone who had been unrelated to the investigation and the campaign,” Whitaker said.
Whitaker also addressed a question that has long been a curiosity of Democrats: who funded the nonprofit that paid him more than $1.2 million before he came to work for the Justice Department. Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., asked if the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust, which described itself as a watchdog nonprofit dedicated to exposing unethical conduct by public officials, had a foreign donor supporting it.
“I don’t actually know the answer to that,” Whitaker said. He added that he did not believe so, and that, “Our main donor was a group that was a U.S. entity.” That entity, he said later, was a group called Donors Trust.
On Thursday, Whitaker had said he would not appear before the committee as scheduled unless committee Democrats gave him assurances he wouldn’t be subpoenaed.
Earlier Thursday evening, Nadler sent a letter to Whitaker that provided no such promise, saying only that “there will be no need for a subpoena” if Whitaker answers lawmakers’ questions. “To the extent that you believe you are unable to fully respond to any specific question, we are prepared to handle your concerns on a case-by-case basis, both during and after tomorrow’s hearing,” Nadler wrote.
The two sides continued discussions throughout the evening and eventually, according to Justice Department officials, Nadler agreed that no subpoena would be issued Thursday or Friday.
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The Washington Post’s Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.