WASHINGTON | Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker insisted on Friday that he had “not interfered” in the special counsel’s Russia investigation as he faced a contentious and partisan congressional hearing in his waning days on the job.
“We have followed the special counsel’s regulations to a T,” Whitaker said. “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.”
He also said he had never discussed with the White House special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into potential coordination between Russia and Donald Trump’s campaign.
The hearing was the first, and likely only, chance for newly empowered Democrats in the majority to grill an attorney general they perceive as a Trump loyalist and whose appointment they suspect was aimed at suppressing investigations of the Republican president. Republicans made clear they viewed the hearing as pointless political grandstanding especially since Whitaker may have less than a week left as the country’s chief law enforcement officer.
“I’m thinking maybe we just set up a popcorn machine in the back,” said Rep. Doug Collins, the committee’s top Republican.
Collins, of Georgia, called it a “dog and pony” show and criticized Democrats for disclosing derogatory information about Whitaker’s business dealings hours before the hearing.
Whitaker vented frustration early on as he repeatedly insisted that he would not discuss his conversations with Trump and tried to shift attention to the conventional work of the Justice Department.
“Mr. Chairman, I see that your five minutes are up,” Whitaker said to the committee’s Democratic leader, Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York.
But Nadler, who a day earlier had threatened to subpoena Whitaker to ensure his appearance, left no doubt about his party’s focus.
“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?”
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 Trump.
“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.
He told lawmakers that there has been no change since his arrival in the job in the “overall management” of Mueller’s 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.