Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker Infuriates House Dems at Hearing


What was pitched as an oversight hearing with Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker on Friday quickly morphed into recriminations and barbed exchanges as Democrats pressed him for hours on his dealings with FBI Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation - and Whitaker, in turn, angered committee lawmakers with his equally fiery comebacks.

"Mr. Chairman, I see that your five minutes is up", Whitaker said, prompting gasps and laughter at the official's tenacity in the face of a committee chairman. "Mr. Chairman", he said, "I see that your 5 minutes is up".

Whitaker said that there are several instances of "ongoing litigation" on the matter and that he could not draw conclusions at this time.

Whitaker's highly anticipated testimony had been in limbo after the Democratic-led committee approved a tentative subpoena to ensure that he appeared and answered questions. On those occasions, Whitaker often repeated the question - and refused to give the direct answers he was asked for.

Whitaker had been chief of staff to Sessions, who was forced from the Cabinet last November as Trump seethed over Sessions' decision to step aside from overseeing the Russian Federation investigation.

Democrats pushed Whitaker on whether he was still critical of the special counsel investigation he is now in charge of.

"It is our understanding that at least one briefing occurred between your decision not to recuse yourself on December 19 and six days later, Christmas Day", Nadler said.

He initially threatened not to appear at all unless the House promised not to subpoena him, evidently missing the point of what a subpoena is. William Barr, who is likely to be confirmed as attorney general next week, also testified last month that he believed Mueller was not on a witch hunt.

"I'm thinking maybe we just set up a popcorn machine in the back", said Rep. Doug Collins, the committee's top Republican.

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"We are pleased to announce that Matthew G. Whitaker, Chief of Staff to Attorney General Jeff Sessions at the Department of Justice, will become our new Acting Attorney General of the United States". He stopped short of asserting executive privilege, the contention that a president needs to be able to rely on confidential counsel from his advisers.

After refusing to answer her question directly, Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee paused to scold the witness: "Mr. Attorney General, we're not joking here".

"He will come back, because we will use a subpoena if we have to", he said.

Whitaker then was allowed time to explain how his ascension to be acting attorney general came about.

Whitaker also denied media reports that Trump lashed out at him after learning his former lawyer and personal fixer Michael Cohen was pleading guilty for lying to Congress about a proposed Trump Tower in Moscow.

Whitaker responded that he had been told by ethics officials that "the decision was mine to make based on the regulations of the Department of Justice, and I made that decision and I stand by that decision".

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. But Whitaker has not appeared to take any actions with regard to the Mueller investigation, and he's left the day-to-day supervision to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who was supervising the probe when Sessions was attorney general and recused himself.

But in another sign the hearing will be acrimonious, Democrats released a letter Friday morning asking Whitaker about his involvement in a company accused by regulators of scamming consumers out of millions of dollars, saying records indicate he failed to return money that would have been distributed to victims.

As IJR Red reported, Collins called the hearing "pointless" and a "character assassination".