Whitaker: I have ‘not interfered’ with Mueller investigation
The acting Attorney General says he has not shared any information about the special counsel's probe with President Trump.
WASHINGTON — Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker told lawmakers Friday he has not shared information he’s received about Robert Mueller’s probe with President Trump or any senior White House officials, nor has he personally taken any actions to interfere in the special counsel’s work.
“We have followed the special counsel’s regulations to a T,” Whitaker said.
But the much-anticipated first appearance of a high-ranking Trump administration official before the newly-empowered Democratic majority produced early fireworks on the issue of executive privilege, as Whitaker said he reserved the right not to answer questions that involve his personal conversations with the president.
At one point, when asked by House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., about whether he had to approve any actions by the special counsel, Whitaker pointed out that it appeared the time allotted for his round of question had expired.
“Mr. Chairman, I see that your five minutes is up,” Whitaker said to gasps from the hearing room, but laughter from Nadler. “I am here voluntarily, we have agreed to five-minute rounds.”
Whitaker ultimately answered.
“There has been no event, no decision that has required me took take any action and I have not interfered in any way with the special counsel’s investigation,” he said.
Democrats hoped Friday’s hearing would address their public concerns about whether Whitaker’s promotion to acting attorney general last November was part of an effort by the president to undercut the Mueller probe. The former attorney general, Jeff Sessions, had recused himself from overseeing its work.
In his opening statement, Nadler focused on the fact that Whitaker ignored the advice of Department of Justice ethics officials that he should recuse himself, based on his prior criticism of the counterintelligence probe as a cable news pundit.
“You decided that your private interest in overseeing this particular investigation — and perhaps others from which you should have been recused — was more important than the integrity of the Department. The question that this committee must now ask is: why?” he said.
Whitaker was appearing before the committee voluntarily. But Nadler had repeatedly requested that Whitaker work out well in advance of the hearing whether he would not be able to answer questions of interest to the panel’s Democrats.
Whitaker did not respond to the questions 48 hours in advance as Democrats requested, so the panel voted Thursday to authorize the use of a subpoena that they said could be issued Friday if Whitaker was evasive. That led the Justice Department to say Whitaker would not appear under a subpoena threat. Hours later, Nadler wrote to Whitaker saying they would agree to withhold any subpoena, and instead work with the Justice Department to resolve issues.
Still, Nadler said during Friday’s hearing that he intended to call Whitaker back for a private deposition in the coming weeks after working with the Justice Department and the White House to identify specific issues where Trump would invoke executive privilege.
Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, accused the Democrats of overreaching so early into their new majority.
He used his opening statement to accuse Democrats of using Whitaker’s appearance simply for “political theater” designed to attack Trump and made a motion to adjourn the hearing before it even started.
"This is nothing more than a character assassination," he said.