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6 takeaways from acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker’s hearing

The day-long testimony was a messy, partisan affair.

Acting AG Matthew Whitaker Testifies Before House Judiciary Committee
Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker testified before the House Judiciary Committee on Friday, February 8, 2019.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker’s much-anticipated hearing before the House Judiciary Committee was a messy affair, filled with some fiery exchanges, partisan bickering, and few revelations about Whitaker’s role overseeing special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation or the rest of the Justice Department.

Whitaker had threatened Thursday not to show up for the prescheduled hearing after the Democrats on the committee authorized a subpoena, leading to a day of back-and-forth with House Democrats that ultimately foreshadowed the tense testimony.

Whitaker said, under oath, that he had not briefed President Donald Trump or other senior White House officials about the special counsel’s probe, and that he had not interfered “in any way” in Mueller’s ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

But Democrats got little else beyond that from Whitaker, who declined to answer many questions on the basis that the special counsel’s investigation (and other criminal investigations potentially involving the president) were ongoing. Whitaker also refused to talk about conversations he may have had with the White House, citing the possibility that the president might invoke executive privilege.

Republicans, meanwhile, expressed outrage that Democrats appeared uninterested in oversight of the Justice Department beyond the Mueller probe, and at times tried to press Whitaker to bend to the narrative embraced by Trump allies that Mueller’s probe represents overreach by federal law enforcement.

Whitaker, in one truly remarkable moment, would not say whether he considered the Mueller investigation a “witch hunt,” failing to debunk the partisan attacks on the probe he oversees.

Whitaker’s days as acting attorney general are dwindling, as Bill Barr, Trump’s nominee, is expected to be confirmed by the Senate next week. But the hearing Friday proved that Democrats taking control of Congress hasn’t eased the deep partisan fractures.

Instead, the fight between Democrats, who want to flex their oversight powers, and Republicans, who largely want to defend the administration, seems to have just begun.

Whitaker says he hasn’t interfered in the Mueller probe

In what might be the key takeaway from the six-plus-hour hearing, Whitaker testified to the House Judiciary Committee that he did not interfere in Mueller’s work.

“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,” Whitaker said.

But this was pretty much as far as he was willing to go. He would not say when or how many times he’d been briefed on the probe. He gave few other details about the special counsel’s work or the progress of the investigation, though he testified he had not received any report from the special counsel.

Whitaker also slightly qualified comments he made last week at an unrelated press conference that Mueller’s investigation was “close to being completed.” He said he made that statement based on his position as acting attorney general but that “Mueller will finish his investigation when he wants to finish his investigation.”

Whitaker won’t talk about his conversations with the president but says he hasn’t talked to Trump about Mueller

Whitaker said in his opening statement that he would not disclose details of conversations with President Trump based on the “longstanding executive branch practice of not disclosing information that may be subject to executive privilege.”

Whitaker held to this for most of the hearing, to Democrats’ frustration. But he did say, under oath, that he has not talked to Trump or other senior White House officials about the investigation.

Whitaker also declined to answer any questions about other criminal investigations potentially involving Trump, specifically an ongoing inquiry in the Southern District of New York involving Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen.

“I am not going to discuss my private conversations with the president of the United States,” Whitaker replied when Rep. Val Demings (D-FL) asked him whether he talked to Trump about Cohen.

“No matter what the question is,” Whitaker added, after she pressed him.

But Whitaker also said Trump never lashed out at him over Cohen, contradicting media reports

In November, Cohen pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about the Trump Tower Moscow project, as part of the special counsel’s investigation. About a week later, Trump was listed as “Individual 1” and implicated in hush money payments Cohen made in a separate filing from federal prosecutors in Manhattan.

Media outlets reported that Trump was infuriated by these developments and had “lashed out” at Whitaker. Trump denied the reports, calling it a “made-up story.”

On Friday, Whitaker also denied that Trump had lashed out at him in response to a question from Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI).

Whitaker at first replied that “the president specifically tweeted that he did not lash out.” Cicilline retorted that he didn’t have a lot of confidence in Trump’s tweet and continued to push Whitaker.

“No, he did not,” Whitaker finally replied.

Whitaker won’t say much about Mueller. But he also won’t say if the probe is a witch hunt.

Whitaker largely deflected questions about the Mueller probe, repeating the line that he wouldn’t discuss an “ongoing criminal investigation.”

This frustrated both Democrats and Republicans at different junctures. Even though Whitaker testified that he had not interfered, Democrats still tried to push him to discuss his role in the probe. Republicans who’ve been critical of the investigation in the past tried to insinuate wrongdoing or overreach by the FBI or DOJ — including about Roger Stone’s arrest by the FBI in January — and wanted Whitaker to back them up.

But one moment stuck out: when Whitaker refused to say, point blank, that Mueller’s investigation was not a “witch hunt,” Trump’s preferred label for the probe.

Whitaker had publicly criticized the Mueller investigation before joining the Justice Department, commenting on CNN and sharing articles that questioned the scope of the probe.

Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) asked Whitaker whether his opinions had changed since assuming control of the DOJ. Whitaker replied with an anodyne answer about “following the facts where they lead.”

Cohen followed up with an even more pointed question: “Are you overseeing a witch hunt?”

Whitaker’s recycled a familiar response: “Congressman, it would be inappropriate for me to talk about an ongoing investigation.”

Whitaker defended his decision not to recuse himself from overseeing the Mueller probe

Trump’s decision to name Whitaker as acting attorney general generated a slew of controversy, given Whitaker’s past public criticisms and the president’s decision to go totally outside the DOJ’s order of succession and appoint a non-Senate-confirmed person to the top law enforcement job in the country.

Democrats immediately called for Whitaker to recuse himself from overseeing the probe, given his past comments. But Whitaker declined in December 2018, apparently over advice from ethics officials.

Whitaker told the committee that an ethics official told him he “could not identify any precedent for me to recuse.”

He added that the ethics official said it was a “close call” based on his past statements. But Whitaker concluded that it was ultimately his decision to make.

This hearing was tense — and very partisan

Whitaker set the tone for the hearing in his first round of questioning with committee chair Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY). Nadler asked Whitaker whether he approved any action by the special counsel’s office.

Whitaker responded by calling out the committee chair for violating the five-minute rule. “Mr. Chairman, I see that your time is up,” he said, as other people in the room responded with laughter and groans.

Whitaker made another comment about time during questioning from Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), to which she fired back, “Mr. Attorney General, we’re not joking here.”

Democrats repeatedly accused Whitaker of trying to stall for time by answering yes-no questions with long-winded responses, or by prefacing answers by thanking lawmakers for their questions or concerns. This frustrated Democrats, and may have backfired a bit too; eager to get through as many questions in possible, they often cut off Whitaker before he could finish his answers or asked rapid-fire questions without waiting for a response to make a point.

While Whitaker wasn’t exactly forthcoming on the topics Democrats cared about most — namely, the Mueller investigation — lawmakers sometimes let Whitaker escape a question to make a political point.

Republicans, for their part, seized the opportunity to do some dramatic pearl-clutching about Democrats’ questions. GOP lawmakers accused Democrats of being uninterested in Justice Department oversight and singularly focused on the president and the Mueller investigation. (Democrats did bring up other issues, including civil rights, diversity within the DOJ, and the family separation policy.)

“Maybe we could set up a popcorn machine in the back, because that’s what this is becoming — it’s becoming a show,” Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA), the Judiciary Committee’s ranking member, said in his opening statement at the start of the hearing.

Republicans were split between chastising Democrats for failing to ask about real issues — gun violence, the opioid epidemic, crimes, the southern border — and trying to insinuate corruption and misconduct within the DOJ and the Mueller probe.

This came through, most obviously, when lawmakers asked about the arrest of Roger Stone, one of Mueller’s major moves that happened under Whitaker’s watch. Collins brought up the fact that CNN had Stone’s home staked out, and in the process reiterated a conspiracy theory that Mueller’s team had tipped off the network to the arrest. (CNN has said its reporters noticed unusual grand jury activity the night before and acted on a hunch.)

Whitaker, rather than debunking the claim outright, implied the same. “I share your concern with the possibility that a media outlet was tipped off to Mr. Stone’s either indictment or arrest before that information was available to the public,” he said.

This hearing served as a good reminder that the gulf between Democrats and Republicans when it comes to what can and should be investigated remains incredibly wide. Whitaker’s hearing is the first of many that will involve top Trump officials, and it’s clear that the disunity and partisan fighting will color any congressional investigation and make oversight a monumental task.

This was expected, to be sure. Now there’s little doubt about what lies ahead.

Correction: This article originally listed Rep. Cicilline’s state as New York. He is a congressman from Rhode Island. The story has been updated, and we apologize for the error.

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