- Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker testified before the House Judiciary Committee Friday about his oversight of the Justice Department.
- His testimony came after some back and forth with the committee’s chairman, Rep. Jerry Nadler, about a potential subpoena threat.
- Nadler and other Democrats on the panel are primarily interested in learning more about the circumstances of Whitaker’s appointment; his oversight of the Justice Department; and his refusal to recuse himself from the ongoing Russia investigation.
- Scroll down for live updates.
Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker appeared before the House Judiciary Committee on Friday for a highly anticipated testimony about his oversight of the Justice Department.
Whitaker’s testimony comes after some back and forth between him and Democrats on the panel, who earlier this week voted to give the committee’s chairman, New York Rep. Jerry Nadler, the authority to subpoena Whitaker’s testimony if he failed to show up Friday or refused to answer lawmakers’ questions.
Following the vote, Whitaker said in a statement Thursday that he would not testify unless Democrats dropped their subpoena threat. Whitaker ultimately agreed to appear before the committee after Nadler responded in a letter, saying there would “be no need” for a subpoena as long as Whitaker showed up Friday prepared to answer lawmakers’ questions.
Friday’s hearing comes as House Democrats flex their oversight and investigative powers after becoming the majority in the lower chamber following the November 2018 midterm elections.
Nadler and his fellow Democrats on the Judiciary Committee signalled a particular interest in learning more about the circumstances of Whitaker’s appointment as acting attorney general; his oversight of the FBI’s Russia investigation; and his refusal to recuse himself from the investigation in light of inflammatory comments he made about the inquiry and the special counsel Robert Mueller.
The hearing began at 9:30 a.m. ET. Follow along for live updates.
Nadler’s opening statement skewers Whitaker’s refusal to comply with ethics advice and coziness with the White House
Nadler pulled no punches in his opening statement at the hearing.
He specifically focused on Whitaker’s refusal to follow advice from career ethics officials at the Justice Department; his history of making public comments critical of the Russia investigation; his insistence that he remain in control of the Russia investigation; and his statement saying he would not appear before the panel unless Democrats pledged not to subpoena him.
In many ways, Nadler said, Whitaker’s conduct fell “well short of the mark.”
“It is my intent that there be no surprises today,” Nadler said. “We have laid all of the groundwork for this hearing out in the open. We have given you months to prepare. We have publicly documented every request we have made. We have provided our Republican colleagues with a meaningful opportunity to weigh in on the process. We have nothing to hide from you, or anyone else. We hope you have nothing to hide from us.”
Republicans call the hearing a ‘character assassination’ and move to end the hearing
After Nadler spoke, his Republican counterpart on the committee came out swinging.
“We now have the reason for this hearing,” said Georgia Rep. Doug Collins. “It has nothing to dow with oversight of the DOJ.”
“This is nothing more than a character assassination,” Collins added. “And we’re going to also decide to see if we can just do something and get at the president if we have the chance.”
“When we look forward into this hearing today … we’re going to have plenty of stunts, we’re going to have plenty of theatrics,” Collins said. “Because that’s what this is becoming. It’s becoming a show.”
Collins then moved to adjourn the hearing, which the committee voted down.
Whitaker: ‘There has been no change in how the department has worked with the special counsel’s office’ since I took over
In his opening statement, Whitaker elaborated on the Justice Department’s accomplishments, under his leadership, in areas like human trafficking, illegal immigration, and the opioid crisis.
He called the former attorney general, Jeff Sessions, who was fired by President Donald Trump last year, “a man for whom I have great respect.”
Sessions “led the department with integrity, a commitment to the rule of law, and with a commitment to carrying out the policies of the President of the United States,” Whitaker said.
He also commented on the nomination of William Barr to fill Sessions’ previous role, saying “no one is more qualified than Bill Barr.”
Then, Whitaker addressed concerns about his relationship with the White House, as well as allegations that the president had asked him to rein in the prosecutors working for the Southern District of New York.
“At no time has the White House asked for, nor have I provided, any promises or commitments concerning the special counsel’s investigation or any other investigation,” Whitaker told lawmakers.
“Since becoming acting attorney general, I have run the Department of Justice with fidelity to the law and to the Constitution,” he continued. “During my time as the leader of the DOJ, the department has complied with the special counsel regulations and there has been no change in how the department has worked with the special counsel’s office.”
He concluded his opening statement by saying he hoped he and the committee would be able to work out any differences “in good faith” before resorting to subpoenas or other legal means to compel testimony.
Whitaker testifies that he did not brief Trump, senior White House staff, or third party individuals about matters related to the Mueller probe.
Nadler kicked off Whitaker’s questioning, asking him whether he’d been briefed on any criminal or counterintelligence matters related to Mueller’s investigation.
After initially declining to answer, Whitaker acknowledged that he had been briefed on the investigation but not while he was serving as chief of staff to Sessions, who recused himself from overseeing the Russia probe in March 2017.
Whitaker and Nadler had a contentious back and forth when Nadler asked him how many times he was briefed on Mueller’s work and when those briefings took place.
“Mr. Chairman, I’ve said all i’ve said all that I’m planning on saying about the number of times or briefings I’ve received on the special counsel’s investigation -” Whitaker began.
“Whether you were briefed is the subject of an ongoing investigation?” Nadler interjected. “I didn’t follow that.”
“No, the number of times I’ve been briefed and my involvement in the investigation, sir,” Whitaker said.
Nadler then said that it was the committee’s understanding that Whitaker was briefed on the investigation at least once in December, before he decided not to recuse himself from overseeing Mueller’s probe.
“What’s the basis for that question, sir?” Whitaker asked.
“Yes or no,” Nadler responded. “It is our understanding that at least one briefing occurred between your decision not to recuse yourself on December 19 and six days later, Christmas Day. Is that correct?”
“No, Mr. Chairman, I’m going to – you are asking me a question that it is your understanding,” Whitaker said. “Can you tell me where you get the basis for -“
“No, I’m not going to tell you that, I don’t have time to get into that,” Nadler said. “I’m just asking you if that’s correct or not. Is it correct?”
Nadler moved on when Whitaker refused to answer. He then asked the acting attorney general whether he communicated any of the information he learned from his briefing to Trump.
Though Whitaker began by saying he would not discuss his private conversations with Trump or other White House officials, he said he did not talk to the president or any senior White House staffers about Mueller’s probe.
Asked whether he relayed information to any third-party individuals who may have passed it on to either Trump or his legal team, Whitaker replied, “I do not believe I have briefed third party individuals outside the Department of Justice.”
The room erupts into laughter as Whitaker interrupts Nadler and tells him his five minutes are up
When Nadler sought to continue his line of questioning, Whitaker responded by saying Nadler’s time was up.
“Now, in your capacity as acting attorney general, have you ever been to approve any request or action to be taken by the special counsel?” Nadler asked.
“Mr. Chairman, I see that your five minutes is up,” Whitaker replied as the room – and Nadler – erupted into laughter. “I am here voluntarily. We have agreed to five minute rounds.”
Nadler grinned and acknowledged Whitaker’s point, but added: “I will point out that we didn’t enforce the five-minute rule on acting attorney general Whitaker,” and asked Whitaker to answer the question.
“We have followed the special counsel’s regulations to a T,” Whitaker replied. “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: It was ‘deeply concerning’ that CNN was camped out on Roger Stone’s property minutes before his arrest
Collins began his questions by asking Whitaker about the recent arrest of the longtime GOP strategist Roger Stone, who was charged with seven felony counts of obstruction, witness tampering, and false statements.
Whitaker said he was briefed on Stone’s indictment before it was made public.
“Are you familiar, from public reports or otherwise, that a CNN reporter was camped out outside of Stone’s house when the FBI arrested him?” Collins asked.
“I am aware of that, and it was deeply concerning to me as to how CNN found out about that,” Whitaker said.
Collins said he was “glad we’re going down that road.”
The line of questioning reflects a conspiracy theory among Trump’s supporters and the far-right that someone in Mueller’s office gave CNN a heads up before FBI agents showed up at Stone’s house in the early hours on January 25.
CNN producer David Shortell, who was on the ground with a camera crew in Fort Lauderdale, Florida to get footage of Stone’s arrest, explained last month that CNN journalists noticed unusual grand jury activity in Washington, DC, the day before Stone’s arrest.
That, coupled with months of reporting on the Russia probe, as well as a short list of possible suspects who may soon face criminal charges, prompted CNN reporters to send a crew to Stone’s house in case he was the target, Shortell said.
Collins drilled down on his line of questioning about CNN, asking Whitaker if anyone within the DOJ had shared a draft copy of Stone’s indictment with anyone else before it was unsealed following Stone’s arrest. Whitaker said he did not know of any such incident.
Whitaker confirms DOJ official John Huber is looking into alleged misconduct by the FBI or DOJ.
Republican lawmakers also asked Whitaker about whether DOJ official Bruce Ohr was still working at the department.
Ohr is at the center of several right-wing conspiracy theories about a department-wide effort to oust Trump from the presidency. Ohr’s wife, Nellie, worked for the opposition-research firm Fusion GPS during the 2016 election. Fusion GPS was hired by the Hillary Clinton campaign to dig up dirt on Trump, and the firm in turn commissioned the ex-British spy Christopher Steele to investigate Trump’s ties to Russia.
Steele ultimately produced what’s become known as the Steele dossier, an explosive collection of memos alleging collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. Both the FBI and Senate Intelligence Community are using the document as a “roadmap” in their respective Russia investigations.
There is no evidence that Ohr was involved in producing the dossier, or that he acted improperly in his role as a DOJ official.
Nonetheless, Trump supporters and several GOP lawmakers have seized on Ohr’s connection to his wife to suggest he was working on behalf of the Clinton campaign to undermine Trump’s candidacy and presidency.
Whitaker also struck a different tone when asked questions about whether the DOJ was conducting an investigation into alleged misconduct by department officials and the FBI during the 2016 election. Whitaker refused to answer questions about Mueller’s probe, citing the sensitivity of an ongoing investigation. But when asked about any investigations into DOJ or FBI misconduct, Whitaker confirmed that department official John Huber was looking into the claims.
Whitaker rebukes Trump, says Mueller probe is staying within its previously outlined scope
Whitaker was also asked to clarify his thoughts on how the Mueller investigation is proceeding, particularly in light of his claim last month that the probe is close to being wrapped up.
Before Whitaker was appointed acting attorney general, he made several public and private remarks about his belief that Mueller had strayed outside the scope of his original appointment. Whitaker also mused about financially gutting the investigation to force it to grind to a halt.
But on Friday, Whitaker appeared to walk back his previous remarks and said Mueller’s office is acting within the scope of the appointment order that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein created in May 2017.
“The special counsel’s investigation is proceeding consistent with the regulations that outline why the appointment happened, consistent with Mr. Rosenstein’s appointment,” Whitaker said in response to questioning from Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren.
The comment stands in stark contrast to both Whitaker’s previous statements, as well as claims from Trump and his legal team that Mueller’s office is on a fishing expedition and a politically motivated “witch hunt” against the president and his associates.
Whitaker dodges questions about whether he shared his criticisms of Mueller with Trump or White House allies while at the DOJ
Whitaker was less forthcoming when asked whether he shared any of his personal opinions or criticisms of Mueller with Trump, his lawyers, or any of his associates prior to being appointed acting attorney general.
“I can assure this committee that before appointing me to this position, the president did not ask for and i did not provide any commitments, promises concerning the special counsel’s investigation, or any other investigation -” Whitaker began, before Lofgren cut him off.
“That’s not the question I asked, sir,” Lofgren said, before saying her time was about to expire.
Nadler allowed Lofgren to finish her line of questioning, and Whitaker replied that he did not discuss his opinions about Mueller with Trump or any other White House officials or allies when he was a private citizen.