Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker said Friday that there’s no reason to interfere in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, undercutting President Donald Trump’s frequent claim the probe is a “witch hunt.”
Whitaker gave key assurances in testimony before the House Judiciary Committee: “I have not interfered in any way” in Mueller’s probe of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign. The special counsel is honest and “is complying with all regulations.” And “I have not talked to the president of the United States” or “senior White House officials” about the probe.
But he also was combative—refusing to answer yes-or-no questions from the committee’s Democratic majority and even dismissively informing the panel’s chairman when his five-minute turn at questioning was up.
He refused to answer detailed questions about how often he’s been briefed, how much he’s been involved in the Mueller probe and whether he and the president have discussed separate investigations by federal prosecutors in New York. He also refused to say explicitly that the Mueller probe isn’t a “witch hunt.”
It was a mixed result in one of the first investigative hearings since Democrats won control of the House with a pledge to pursue oversight that Trump has called “presidential harassment.” It also was something of an exhibition match because Whitaker is likely to leave his post after the Senate’s expected confirmation of William Barr as attorney general next week.
“In your final week, keep your hands off the Mueller investigation,” Democratic Representative Hakeem Jeffries told Whitaker.
Reminding Whitaker about his sometimes sharp criticism of Mueller’s probe before he joined the Justice Department, the New York Democrat ticked off the list of former Trump aides and advisers who have pleaded guilty to criminal charges. “One-by-one all the president’s men are going down in flames,” he said.
Republicans, now in the minority on a committee they once ran, called the hearing pointless. Representative Doug Collins of Georgia, the panel’s top Republican, said Democrats were staging a “dog-and-pony show” simply “to damage the president.”
In agreeing to appear before the Judiciary panel, Whitaker sidestepped a confrontation with Democrats over threats to subpoena him.
On Thursday the House panel voted to authorize a subpoena of Whitaker. Whitaker balked at the subpoena threat until Chairman Jerrold Nadler took a more conciliatory stance.
That evening, Nadler resolved the daylong stalemate, telling Whitaker: “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.”
At Friday’s hearing, Nadler left his options open. He told Whitaker that “your failure to respond fully to our questions here today in no way limits the ability of this committee to get your answers in the long-run—even if you are a private citizen when we finally learn the truth.”
The White House denounced Nadler’s moves in advance of the hearing.
“The fact Chairman Nadler would try to force the public disclosure of private conversations that he knows are protected by law proves he only wants to play politics,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement Thursday night. “The chairman should focus on helping the American people, rather than wasting time playing pointless political games.”