Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker told the House Judiciary Committee on Friday that he had not talked to President Donald Trump about special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, and that he had not interfered with the probe in any way.
The revelations came amid a tense line of questioning between House Judiciary Chair Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) and Whitaker, a continuation of the drama that had played out in public on Thursday over whether the acting attorney general would show up for the previously scheduled hearing.
Nadler first asked whether Whitaker had been briefed on Mueller’s investigation, citing Whitaker’s comments at a January 28 press conference where he said the probe is “close to being completed.”
Whitaker conceded that he had been briefed, but refused to say how many times and when. It was one of a few awkward exchanges where Nadler directed questions at Whitaker and Whitaker tried to obfuscate, or responded with his own questions.
But in the back-and-forth with Nadler, Whitaker did answer some crucial questions that Democrats on the committee were keen to know. That included whether he had ever briefed President Donald Trump on Mueller’s investigation, or talked to any senior White House officials about it since becoming acting attorney general in November.
“Mr. Chairman, as I said earlier today in my opening remarks, I do not intend today to talk about my private conversations with the president of United States,” Whitaker replied, “but to answer your question, I’ve not talked to the president of the United States about the special counsel’s investigation.”
Whitaker also said — in a similarly roundabout way — that he had not talked with senior White House officials about Mueller’s probe.
Many of the exchanges between Nadler and Whitaker played out this way, with Nadler asking a yes-no question and Whitaker answering with a circuitous statement. Each Congress member gets five minutes for questions, so whether it was an attempt by Whitaker to stall or run out the clock is unclear.
In one truly awkward moment, Whitaker, instead of answering Nadler’s question about whether he approved any action by the special counsel’s office, called out the committee chair for violating the five-minute rule.
“Mr. Chairman, I see that your time is up,” Whitaker said, as other people in the room responded with laughter and groans.
NADLER: “In your capacity as acting attorney general have you ever been asked to approve any request for action to be taken by the special counsel?”
WHITAKER: “Mr chairman, I see that your time is up.”
[uproarious laughter] pic.twitter.com/sHlPpXP9Os
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) February 8, 2019
Even Nadler chuckled — but continued to question the acting attorney general, asking again if he had taken any action “to approve or disapprove a request or action to be taken by the special counsel?”
This time, Whitaker did answer, saying that he wanted to specifically dispel any fears among the committee and the public. “There’s been no event, no decision that has required me to take any action,” he said. “I’ve not interfered in any way with the special counsel’s investigation.”
So Democrats — even if it took a bit of time to get there — got Whitaker to say, under oath, that he had not talked with the president or interfered in Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 campaign.
Whitaker’s appointment as acting attorney general had worried Democrats, as Whitaker had publicly criticized the Mueller investigation before joining the Justice Department and Trump bypassed the succession order at DOJ to install him in the role of acting attorney general. Whitaker also refused to recuse himself from the investigation, raising fears that Trump had installed him in the job to curtail or sideline the Mueller probe.
But Whitaker’s testimony on Friday should give Democrats some confidence that Mueller’s work has continued unimpeded.
It also may provide the most compelling pieces of information they get out of Whitaker. The acting attorney general is doing his best to avoid answering questions, citing the possibility of executive privilege and the ongoing investigation as reasons he can’t be as forthcoming. That’s likely to keep happening as the hearing continues.