WASHINGTON (CN) – During hours of contentious testimony Friday, Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker told lawmakers he has not discussed Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation with President Donald Trump or with any senior officials at the White House.
Whitaker appeared before the House Judiciary Committee Friday morning for a highly anticipated oversight hearing in which Democrats will seek to press him on his time overseeing Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and possible collusion with the Trump campaign.
Whitaker told Representative Jerry Nadler, the New York Democrat who chairs the committee, that he has been briefed on Mueller’s probe but has not needed to approve an action the special counsel has taken.
“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.”
Whitaker also told Nadler, “I do not intend today to talk about my private conversations with the president of the United States, but to answer your question, I have not talked to the president of the United States about the special counsel’s investigation.”
Whitaker told the committee he has not denied Mueller any money he requested for the investigation. He said Trump did not ask him to make any promises about his handling of the probe before appointing him as 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 as I mentioned in my opening statement,” he said.
Facing questions about his comments at a press conference last month in which he suggested Mueller’s investigation is nearing its completion, Whitaker acknowledged Mueller might not agree with his characterization of the probe’s timeline.
“Bob Mueller is going to finish his investigation when he wants to finish his investigation,” he said.
Whitaker took over the department in November, after Trump forced former Attorney General Jeff Sessions to resign. Trump had spent months publicly feuding with Sessions after the former senator and early Trump backer recused himself from investigations related to the campaign.
Nadler began the hearing by excoriating Whitaker over his decision to not recuse himself from Mueller’s investigation, despite the recommendation to the contrary by agency ethics officials. Before taking over the agency, Whitaker had made public comments critical of Mueller’s probe.
“But when career officials at the department recommended that you take steps to mitigate your apparent conflicts of interest, when they told you that your public criticism of the special counsel was bad for the department and bad for the administration of justice, you ignored them,” Nadler said. “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.”
Representative Ted Deutch, D-Fla., echoed this sentiment at the hearing, saying lawmakers have concerns about why Trump went outside the typical succession plan when appointing Whitaker as Sessions’ replacement.
“I think what we’re trying to figure out is why is it exactly that the president chose to go beyond the statute and choose you,” Deutch said.
Whitaker said he thinks the president chose him because of his past experience in the Justice Department as a federal prosecutor and the knowledge of the position he gained while working for Sessions.
“I think the president was comfortable that to continue the momentum at the Department of Justice we had established in addressing these important priority issues like reducing violent crime, combating the opioid crisis and others that the president felt I was best positioned to do the duties of attorney general,” he said.
Nadler also criticized Whitaker for a public back-and-forth with the committee on Thursday in which Whitaker threatened not to show up for the hearing unless Nadler dropped his threat to issue a subpoena if Whitaker did not answer members’ questions. The committee had voted Thursday authorizing Nadler to issue such a measure if necessary.
“When our members ask you if you conveyed sensitive information to the president, or ignored ethics advice at the direction of the president, or worked with the White House to orchestrate the firing of your predecessor, the answer should be no,” Nadler said.
Whitaker’s time before the committee got off to a contentious start, as he said he was unwilling to talk about specifics of conversations with Trump or details of ongoing investigations. Nadler eventually said he will seek to have Whitaker appear for a deposition before the committee.
Nadler’s first round of questioning blew past the typical five minutes the committee allots each member for questions, a fact that was not lost on Whitaker. When Nadler asked a question after his five minutes had run out, Whitaker began his answer by noting the chairman was over time, drawing gasps and shocked laughter from Democrats on the committee.
Other Democrats also grew frustrated with Whitaker’s answers, which often contained long preambles and attempted to sidestep the core points in the lawmakers’ questions. Nadler regularly intervened in shouting matches between Whitaker and lawmakers by slamming his gavel, inevitably telling Whitaker to answer the question.
Republicans, meanwhile, criticized the majority’s handling of the hearing, with Representative Doug Collins, the top Republican on the committee, calling it “nothing more than a character assassination.”
“I’m thinking about just maybe setting up a popcorn machine in the back, because that’s what this has become,” Collins said. “It’s becoming a show.”
Just as there were contentious moments between Whitaker and lawmakers, members of the committee also clashed amongst themselves as the hearing dragged into the afternoon.
At several points during the hearing, Collins objected to Democrats’ questions that probed Whitaker’s work before he joined the agency. He said such questions, including those about Whitaker’s time working for the conservative watchdog nonprofit Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust, fell outside the scope of what the hearing was meant to address.
Whitaker is not long for his position in the Justice Department, as the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday advanced the nomination of the man who will likely replace him, William Barr. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell took steps later in the day to set up votes on Barr’s nomination as early as next week.