Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker told the House Judiciary Committee on Friday that he has not interfered with the special counsel’s Russia investigation and hasn’t promised the White House anything about the probe or informed anyone there about it.
Not that it was easy for Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., to get him to say that.
Whitaker, who was picked by President Donald Trump to run the Justice Department temporarily when former Attorney General Jeff Sessions was forced to resign in November, appeared keenly aware at the witness table that the juggernaut of interest that follows the special counsel drama was bearing down on his every word.
Nadler, the panel’s first questioner, asked Whitaker questions about the integrity of the Robert S. Mueller III-led investigation. He focused on Democratic suspicions that Trump picked Whitaker over more qualified people to run the Justice Department as a way to curtail the probe or deliver information about it to the White House.
Watch: A brief overview of Chairman Nadler's opening questions to Matthew Whitaker
Whitaker, sometimes consulting paperwork that appeared to have responses pre-written on it, often replied with a long preamble or pushed back against even simple queries such as whether he had been briefed on the Mueller probe.
“I cannot talk about ongoing investigations,” Whitaker replied early in the questioning. “You can say whether you’ve been briefed or not,” Nadler pressed. “I have been briefed on it,” Whitaker eventually said.
Nadler asked if Whitaker had been briefed on certain days in December; Whitaker demanded to know the basis of the question. Nadler said it was a yes or no question.
“Congressman, if every member here today asked questions based on their mere speculation, and I don’t have a factual basis for questions it’s very difficult for me to answer,” Whitaker said.
Nadler, near the end of his five-minute round of questioning, said Whitaker’s responses appeared designed to delay answering the questions and said that Whitaker would be asked to return for a deposition under oath, with the transcript released to the public, to give cleaner answers to the questions.
After announcing that, Nadler then asked whether Whitaker had been asked to approve or disapprove a request or action to be taken by the special counsel.
“Mr. Chairman, I see that your five minutes is up, and so, um, I’m here voluntarily, we have agreed to five minute rounds,” Whitaker responded, prompting groans and laughter in the hearing room.
It took a few moments of back and forth after that, but Whitaker eventually said: “I want to be very specific about this Mr. Chairman, because I think it's going to allay a lot of fears that have existed among this committee, among the legislative branch largely, and maybe among some American people."
"We have followed the special counsel's regulations to a tee. 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 said.
Whitaker also told the committee that, during his tenure, the department has complied with the special counsel regulations and hasn’t changed how it worked with Mueller’s office.
“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 testified.
Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., in opening statements, said the hearing had nothing to do with oversight of the Justice Department and was character assassination of Whitaker, who likely will no longer have oversight of the Mueller probe next week if the Senate confirms William Barr, Trump's nominee, to be the next attorney general.
"Bring your popcorn," Collins said of the day’s political drama. "I'm thinking maybe we just set up a popcorn machine in the back."
Whitaker, under questioning from Collins, said that he would “like to talk about the incredible work we have been doing at the Department of Justice since I was chief of staff and now acting attorney general.”
The hearing is expected to continue for many hours on Friday.