At fiery hearing, Whitaker testifies that he has not talked about Mueller to Trump

Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker told he does not need to recuse himself from overseeing Mueller investigation.

(CNN) — Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker told lawmakers on Friday he has not spoken to President Donald Trump about special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation as he squared off with Democrats over his tenure atop the Justice Department during a contentious congressional hearing.

Whitaker testified following a lengthy fight with House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler over the prospect that he would be subpoenaed for not answering questions. But even when faced just feet in front of Nadler, Whitaker resisted questioning, at one point cutting off the chairman to note his five minutes was up, drawing the scoffs of astonished members of Congress.

Whitaker and Nadler, a New York Democrat, sparred over whether he could answer questions about his private conversations with senior White House officials and the President, but the acting attorney general made an exception to say he did not discuss the Mueller probe with them.

“I do not intend today to talk about my private conversations with the President of the United States, but to answer your question, I have not talked to the President of the United States about the special counsel’s investigation,” Whitaker told Nadler.

“We have followed the special counsel’s regulations to a T,” Whitaker later added. “There has been no decision that has required me to take any action, and I have not interfered with the special counsel’s investigation in any way.”

Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the committee’s top Republican, previewed his party’s approach to the hearing in his opening remarks, calling the entire hearing — the first with Whitaker— “pure political theater,” “pointless,” and a “dog and pony show.” He then called to adjourn the hearing, and when he lost by a voice vote, demanded each member announce his position in a roll call vote.

“Bring your popcorn,” he said.

For weeks, Democrats on the committee hoped they would get the chance to question Whitaker about his views on special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, any actions he’s taken related to the probe and his decision not to recuse from the investigation after Justice Department ethics officials recommended he do so.

In his opening statement, Nadler criticized Whitaker for going against the advice offered by Justice Department ethics officials to recuse himself from supervising the Mueller investigation.

“In my view, your conduct, Mr. Whitaker — including your decision to ignore important ethics advice when you became acting Attorney General, no matter the consequences — your conduct, sir, falls well short of the mark,” said Nadler, a Democrat from New York.

In his prepared opening statement, Whitaker said he intended to protect executive privilege involving his “deliberations or conversations” with the President.

“I want to assure you that I will seek to answer the Committee’s questions today, as best as I can, but I also must make clear that I will continue the longstanding Executive Branch policy and practice of not disclosing information that may be subject to executive privilege, such as the contents of deliberations or conversations with the President,” Whitaker said.

In addition, the acting attorney general told the committee there has been “no change in the overall management of the Special Counsel investigation.”

“I have and will continue to manage this investigation in a manner that is consistent with the governing regulations,” he said.

Fighting before the hearing begins

It was unclear whether Whitaker would even show up until late Thursday night after weeks of disputes between the Department of Justice and the House Judiciary committee.

In January, Nadler threatened to issue a subpoena to Whitaker for his testimony if he did not agree to appear, saying that Whitaker was backtracking on a previous promise to testify in the first month of the new Congress. The committee and Justice Department eventually agreed he would voluntarily appear on February 8.

But this week, Nadler said he needed that power in case Whitaker did not appear or would not answer the committee’s questions, including about conversations with the White House involving the Mueller’s investigation. On Thursday, Democrats voted to authorize the subpoena ahead of his Whitaker’s testimony.

Republicans slammed Nadler for pre-emptively planning a subpoena for a witness who had voluntarily agreed to testify, saying it set a troubling precedent.

“A subpoena should only follow a breakdown of the accommodation process and as a last resort against persons seeking to frustrate legitimate oversight on this committee,” Collins said. “There has been no breakdown here.”

In response, the Justice Department sent Nadler a letter stating that Whitaker would not testify without a written assurance from Nadler that he would not issue a subpoena before or during the hearing.

Nadler told the Justice Department in a follow-up letter that he could assure Whitaker he would not issue a subpoena on Friday, so long as he was prepared to answer questions from the panel’s members.

“To the extent that you believe you are unable to fully respond to any specific question, we are prepared to handle your concerns on a case-by-case basis, both during and after tomorrow’s hearing,” Nadler wrote.

Nadler’s letter alone wasn’t enough to convince Whitaker to testify, but Justice Department spokesperson Kerri Kupec said Whitaker received the necessary assurances.

Since Whitaker was tapped to replace Jeff Sessions in November as acting attorney general, he has been under fire from Democrats for his public comments criticizing the special counsel’s investigation.

Democrats demanded he recuse himself, and have called for an investigation into his decision not to recuse despite the recommendation from DOJ ethics officials. 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.

Whitaker likely won’t be in his position for much longer. Bill Barr, President Donald Trump’s nominee to be Attorney General, is on track to be confirmed by the Senate next week.

Ahead of the hearing, four Democratic House committee chairmen accused Whitaker of not repaying over $9,000 in funds to a now-shuttered, “scam” patent company he was involved with so that the money can be returned to victims, an issue that Democrats are likely to raise on Friday.

“We have obtained new documents showing that you failed to return thousands of dollars that were supposed to be distributed to the victims of World Patent Marketing’s alleged fraud, despite your involvement…in handling complaints from individuals of the company’s actions,” four House committee chairman wrote in a letter to Whitaker dated Thursday. Collins said Friday the Democrats’ move was part of a “character assassination.”

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