Matthew G. Whitaker declined to defend the special counsel’s investigation, as his predecessor and likely successor at the Justice Department have done
But Mr. Whitaker declared that he had “not interfered in any way” in the special counsel investigation and that he had provided no information about it to President Trump or White House officials.
Mr. Whitaker said multiple times that he did not discuss the Mueller investigation with anyone at the White House, even though in July 2017 he interviewed to become a White House lawyer who would manage and respond to that inquiry.
Whitaker pointedly declines to defend the Mueller investigation
Mr. Whitaker’s predecessor overseeing the special counsel investigation, Rod J. Rosenstein, and his likely successor, William P. Barr, have both defended Mr. Mueller from the president’s accusation that the inquiry is a “witch hunt.” Mr. Whitaker was asked to do the same, and had a different answer.
“Would you say the special counsel’s investigation is a witch hunt?” Representative Steve Cohen, Democrat of Tennessee, asked. “Are you overseeing a witch hunt?”
“Congressman, it would be inappropriate for me to talk about an ongoing investigation,” Mr. Whitaker said, but he added that he had not denied it any funds or interfered with Mr. Mueller’s work. He provided a similar answer to another Democrat.
Whitaker says he has not interfered in the Russia inquiry
The hearing quickly turned contentious as the committee chairman, Representative Jerrold Nadler, pressed Mr. Whitaker for details about when he had been briefed about the special counsel investigation and the acting attorney general refused to answer.
But under pressure from the chairman, Mr. Whitaker made news: He testified that he had not talked to Mr. Trump or senior White House officials about information: “I do not believe that I have briefed third-party individuals outside of the Department of Justice. I’ve received the briefings myself, and I’m usually the endpoint at that information.”
Mr. Whitaker ultimately declared that though he had been briefed, he had followed “the special counsel’s regulations to a T.”
“There’s been no event, no decision that has required me to take any action, and I’ve not interfered in any way with the special counsel’s investigation,” he said.
He interviewed for a job responding to the Mueller inquiry, but also says he never talked to the White House about the inquiry
One moment in Mr. Whitaker’s testimony raised a potential conflict with news reports about events that led up to the Trump administration’s hiring of him.
Pressed by Representative Zoe Lofgren, Democrat of California, to say whether he had spoken to Mr. Trump, his family, White House officials, or outside surrogates like Rudy Giuliani about his views of the Mueller investigation before he joined the Justice Department in the fall of 2017, Mr. Whitaker said definitively that he had not.
“Congresswoman, just to be clear, you are asking me whether I talked with anybody in the president’s circle or the White House about my views of the special counsel investigation when I was a private citizen and not at the Department of Justice?” he said.
“Correct, correct,” Ms. Lofgren replied.
“No I did not,” he said.
But, as The New York Times has reported, in July 2017 Mr. Whitaker interviewed with Donald F. McGahn II, then serving as Mr. Trump’s White House counsel, about the possibility of becoming the administration’s in-house lawyer who would manage and respond to the Mueller investigation.
The White House instead ended up giving that job to Ty Cobb, and Mr. Whitaker continued to make public comments that were skeptical about the Russia investigation before the administration made him chief of staff to Mr. Sessions.
A Justice Department spokeswoman had no immediate comment in response to an inquiry about how to square his testimony with the July 2017 interview with Mr. McGahn.
Democrats and Whitaker tangle to score points on a televised stage
Oversight hearings like the one in the Judiciary Committee are part fact-finding, part political theater. Lawmakers take pains to set up contentious exchanges that can be captured on video and cut into clips for cable news or social media. They raise their voices. They often insinuate a witness is hiding something.
Republicans have done it when they were in power, and newly empowered Democrats flashed elements of it on Friday.
The trouble for Democrats was, that after Mr. Whitaker declared directly at the hearing’s outset that he had not interfered with Mr. Mueller’s work, they struggled to know where to go next.
They repeated questions about his views of the special counsel inquiry and why he had discussed it publicly, with varying twists. Mr. Whitaker basically repeated himself, or said he could not answer.
Republicans helped Mr. Whitaker with a two-tone approach. Mr. Collins, the top ranking Republican, vocally and at times voluminously, objected to the germaneness of Democrats’ lines of questioning, trying to make them look unreasonable, while many rank-and-file members used their allotted time to lament all the policy areas — opioids, crime, guns — that Mr. Whitaker ought to be addressing but could not.
But Mr. Whitaker hurt his own case, too, by interrupting lawmakers and trying to police their questioning time.
Defending his appointment as acting attorney general
Democrats used their questioning to repeatedly insinuate that Mr. Trump had chosen Mr. Whitaker as acting attorney general because of his openly critical views of the special counsel investigation. Mr. Whitaker repeatedly rejected that premise.
“I believe the president chose me to be acting attorney general for a couple of reasons,” Mr. Whitaker said.
One was his experience as a United States attorney in Iowa. The other was his close work with Jeff Sessions, the former attorney general he served as his chief of staff.
“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 crimes, combating the opioid crisis and others, that the president felt I was best positioned to do the duties of attorney general,” Mr. Whitaker said.
Whitaker thinks he’s shared enough about Mueller
Mr. Whitaker told Representative Zoe Lofgren, Democrat of California, that he would not discuss his decision to say last month that the Mueller inquiry was drawing to a close, citing the fact that it is an ongoing investigation.
“It seems to me you did talk about an ongoing investigation,” Ms. Lofgren said, adding that she would like to know what he meant by his comments.
Mr. Whitaker would say only that the special counsel investigation was proceeding consistent with the regulations outlined by Rod J. Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general.
Cameos for Roger Stone and Bruce Ohr
Representative Doug Collins of Georgia, the ranking Republican on the committee, criticized Democrats for obsessing over the special counsel investigation, but he had some questions of his own related to its work.
The first related to the arrest of Roger J. Stone Jr., one of Mr. Trump’s longtime advisers, by the F.B.I. last month. CNN captured the raid of Mr. Stone’s Florida home live with a camera it had set up on the street, and Mr. Collins wanted to know if the news channel had been tipped off.
Mr. Whitaker said the coincidence was “deeply concerning,” but said he did not know of any tip.
“I share your concern with the possibility that a media outlet was tipped off to Mr. Stone’s either indictment or arrest before it was made,” Mr. Whitaker said.
CNN has said its positioning was just a matter of good reporting and luck.
Mr. Collins also asked whether or not Bruce Ohr, a once obscure Justice Department official, still worked there. Mr. Ohr has long been targeted by the president’s allies for contacts he and his wife, who worked as a contractor for Fusion GPS, had with that research firm, which helped compile a salacious dossier about Mr. Trump.
Mr. Ohr is still an employee, Mr. Whitaker said, adding that he could not comment further on a “human resource matter.”
Whitaker: “Mr. Chairman, I see that your five minutes is up.”
When Mr. Nadler asked Mr. Whitaker if he had ever been asked to approve any request for action to be taken by Mr. Mueller, Mr. Whitaker replied: “Mr. Chairman, I see that your five minutes is up.”
The room then broke into laughter as Mr. Nadler looked up in apparent disbelief, then grinned himself and noted that he did not enforce the five-minute rule during Mr. Whitaker’s opening statement, then asked him to “answer the question, please.”
The exchange was a remarkable breach of decorum between two branches of government. It is highly unusual for a witness, much less an official serving in an acting capacity, to challenge the chairman of a congressional committee that oversees his department.
Mr. Whitaker’s retorts to lawmakers soon irked Democrats. “Mr. Attorney General, we are not joking here,” said Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, Democrat of Texas, during a later exchange. “And your humor is not acceptable.”
Whitaker repeatedly tries to shift to other subjects.
As lawmakers pressed him again and again toward discussion of the special counsel’s investigation, Mr. Whitaker made clear that he would much prefer to talk about the department, its policies and its work.
“I think it’s important as we sit here today that we understand that this is not a confirmation hearing, that I’m probably going to replaced by Bill Barr in the next week,” he said in one exchange, referring to William P. Barr, the president’s attorney general nominee.
In unsolicited remarks, Mr. Whitaker said he was “surprised” that they had not talked about violent crime.
“We haven’t talked about the opioid crisis,” he continued. “We haven’t talked about religious liberty yet. We haven’t talked about free speech on the college campuses, and whole host of issues that I know are very important to you.”
He also defended his own integrity: “I do want to make clear that I am personally committed to the integrity of the Department of Justice. Since becoming acting attorney general, I have run the department to the best of my ability, with fidelity to the law and to the Constitution.”
Nadler says Whitaker’s behavior “falls well short of the mark”
Mr. Nadler, the committee chairman, opened the hearing with sharp criticisms of Mr. Whitaker’s conduct while the acting attorney general. In particular he took Mr. Whitaker to task for refusing to recuse himself from overseeing the Russia investigation even after career ethics officials recommended that he do so — a decision that Mr. Nadler said fell “well short of the mark.”
It’s one of many actions that Mr. Nadler said raised important questions about why President Trump chose Mr. Whitaker to run the department: Why did the president get rid of Mr. Sessions? Why did Mr. Whitaker choose to oversee an investigation that could harm Mr. Trump? And what does Mr. Trump hope to get from Mr. Whitaker’s leadership?
Collins accuses Democrats of “political theater” before putting on his own opening show
Mr. Collins, the ranking Republican on the committee, angrily attacked Democrats in his opening statement, saying that they were interested in carrying out a “character assassination” of Mr. Whitaker and damaging Mr. Trump, not carrying out oversight of the Department of Justice.
Mr. Collins noted that Mr. Nadler had promised not to issue a subpoena to Mr. Whitaker on Friday, saying Democrats had played a “hide and seek game” in securing permission on Thursday to subpoena Mr. Whitaker. And, noting that Mr. Barr would probably be attorney general by the end of next week, he said Democrats were just interested in having a “show” for partisan purposes.
After accusing Mr. Nadler of wasting time, Mr. Collins ended his fiery opening remarks by calling for the committee to adjourn. Mr. Nadler objected, but the request forced a committee vote to keep the hearing going before Mr. Whitaker was even sworn in.
Welcome to the Hill. Now about those documents.
Democrats’ antagonizing of Mr. Whitaker began before he was even in the hearing room on Friday. Four Democratic committee chairmen, including Mr. Nadler of the Judiciary Committee, released a letter they sent Mr. Whitaker on Thursday raising new questions about his work for a Florida company, World Patent Marketing, which is accused of defrauding customers. Mr. Whitaker, they said, had ignored their earlier requests for information. And new information obtained by the House indicated that Mr. Whitaker had not returned funds he had been paid by the company, which the chairmen said it had requested be returned to pay victims of the fraud.
“To date, you have failed to respond to that letter or provide a single document that we requested,” they wrote. “Since that time, we have obtained new documents showing that you failed to return thousands of dollars that were supposed to be distributed to the victims of World Patent Marketing alleged fraud, despite your involvement with Mr. Cooper in handling complaints from individuals of the company’s actions.”
A federal judge shut the company down last year and fined it nearly $26 million.
Whitaker won’t share his talks with Trump
Mr. Whitaker tried to set the tone for the back and forth with lawmakers by saying in his opening statement that he would not answer questions about his conversations with Mr. Trump.
“I will continue the longstanding Executive Branch policy and practice of not disclosing information that may be subject to executive privilege,” he said.
That answer did not satisfy the chairman, who said he expected Mr. Whitaker to consult the Justice Department and White House to return “in the coming weeks” for a transcribed deposition.
“Any questions that are unanswered today or require consultation with the White House will be asked again at that proceeding, and I expect a clean answer or a proper assertion of privilege,” Mr. Nadler said.
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Katie Benner covers the Justice Department. She was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for public service for reporting on workplace sexual harassment issues. @ktbenner
Nicholas Fandos is a reporter in the Washington bureau covering Congress. @npfandos
Charlie Savage is a Washington-based national security and legal policy correspondent. A recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, he previously worked at The Boston Globe and The Miami Herald. His most recent book is “Power Wars: The Relentless Rise of Presidential Authority and Secrecy.” @charlie_savage • Facebook
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