WASHINGTON – Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker said on Friday that he has "not interfered in any way" in the special counsel's Russia investigation as he faced a contentious and partisan congressional hearing in his waning days on the job.
The hearing before the House Judiciary Committee was the first, and likely only, chance for newly empowered Democrats in the majority to grill an attorney general they perceive as a Donald Trump loyalist and whose appointment they suspect was aimed at suppressing investigations of the Republican president. They confronted Whitaker on his past criticism of special counsel Robert Mueller's work and his refusal to recuse himself from overseeing it, attacked him over his prior business dealings and sneeringly challenged his credentials as the country's chief law enforcement officer.
"We're all trying to figure out: Who are you, where did you come from and how the heck did you become the head of the Department of Justice," said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries. When Whitaker tried to respond, the New York Democrat interrupted, "Mr. Whitaker, that was a statement, not a question. I assume you know the difference."
Yet Democrats yielded no new information about the status of the Mueller probe as Whitaker repeatedly refused to discuss conversations with the president or answer questions that he thought might reveal details. Though clearly exasperated – he drew gasps when he told the committee chairman that his five-minute time limit for questions was up – Whitaker nonetheless sought to assuage Democratic concerns by insisting he had never discussed the Mueller probe with Trump or other White House officials, and that there'd been no change in its "overall management."
"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."
Republicans made clear they viewed the hearing as pointless political grandstanding, especially since Whitaker may have less than a week left in the job, and some respected his wishes by asking questions about topics other than Mueller's probe into potential ties between Russia and the Trump campaign. The Senate is expected to vote as soon as next week on confirming William Barr, Trump's pick for attorney general.
"I'm thinking about maybe we just set up a popcorn machine in the back because that's what this is becoming," said Republican Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia. "It's becoming a show."
But Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the committee chairman who a day earlier had threatened to subpoena Whitaker to ensure his appearance, left no doubt about his party's focus.
"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," said Nadler, of New York. "The question that this committee must now ask is: Why?"
Whitaker toggled between defending his role in the special counsel's investigation and echoing the president's talking points, conceding for instance that while foreign interference in U.S. elections was a problem, so too was voter fraud – a key issue for Republicans, but one that Democrats say is overstated. He said he had no reason to doubt Mueller's honesty and or to believe that he was conflicted in his leadership of the department.
But he also declined to say if he still agreed with sharply critical comments about the Mueller investigation that he made as a television commentator before arriving at the Justice Department in the fall of 2017 as chief of staff to then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions. And he passed up a chance to break from the president's characterization of the Mueller investigation as a "witch hunt," saying simply, "I think it would be inappropriate for me to comment on an ongoing investigation."
FBI Director Christopher Wray, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Barr have all maintained that they do not believe the investigation to be a witch hunt.
White House officials kept an eye on Whitaker's performance and, while they appreciated his combative tone and aggressive defense of the administration, there was a sense from aides that his performance, at times, appeared halting and ill-prepared. The president himself kept an eye on the proceedings as well before leaving the White House for his annual physical.
Whitaker laid the groundwork for a likely tussle with Democrats by saying in his opening statement that while he would address their questions, he would not reveal details of his communications with Trump.
"I trust that the members of this committee will respect the confidentiality that is necessary to the proper functioning of the presidency – just as we respect the confidentiality necessary to the legislative branch," Whitaker said.
Democrats also inquired about Whitaker's past business dealings. Nadler and three other House committee chairmen released documents that they said show Whitaker failed to return thousands of dollars that were supposed to be distributed to victims of a company's alleged fraud. Whitaker has come under scrutiny for his involvement with the invention promotion company, which was accused of misleading consumers.
Whitaker, a former U.S. attorney from Iowa, took over when Sessions was forced from the Cabinet last November as Trump seethed over Sessions' decision to step aside from overseeing the Russia investigation. Trump insists there was "no collusion" between his campaign and Russia.
Associated Press writers Chad Day and Jonathan Lemire contributed to this report.