Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker’s appearance before the House Judiciary Committee today (Feb. 8) has been quite a contentious affair.
In fact, Republican representative Louie Gohmert of Texas noted, jokingly, that Whitaker’s presence at the hearing indicates he must have a “suicide wish.”
Gohmert’s statement reflects the strange tone and timing of the hearing. The acting AG is expected to soon be replaced by William Barr, Donald Trump’s nominee to replace Jeff Sessions. A vote on Barr’s confirmation will take place next week. Nonetheless, Whitaker is talking to members of the House of Representatives about the work he’s done in the interim, and getting a lot of heat for his refusal to recuse himself from decisions related to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigations into Russian meddling in the 2016 US election.
Whitaker previously called the Mueller investigation “a witch hunt” and the phrase haunted him today. Democratic representative Hank Johnson of Georgia was particularly tough on the acting AG, insisting that he explain precisely who he spoke to at the Department of Justice about the decision not to recuse himself. “Name me some names, sir,” Johnson said. He indicated that to avoid a conflict of interest, or even just the appearance of one, Whitaker should have avoided any role in overseeing the Mueller investigation when he was made acting AG.
A flustered-looking Whitaker initially refused but ultimately relented, perhaps spurred on by the chiding of the committee chairman, Democrat Jerrold Nadler of New York. “It’s getting a little tiresome hearing you stall and waste time,” Nadler said. “We don’t need a speech.”
The acting AG said he consulted with career officials at the DOJ, including Brad Weinsheimer, acting associate deputy attorney general. He said recusal was “a close call.” Whitaker has also made statements that Mueller was very professional, which in Weinsheimer’s view offset the witch hunt claims. Nonetheless, Weisheimer did apparently advise Whitaker to recuse himself in an “abundance of caution,” advice that the acting AG ultimately rejected.
Whitaker was also taken to task for refusing to comment on the Mueller investigation at the hearing, having been vociferous about it prior to his role at the DOJ, and on charges levied against Trump associate Roger Stone by special counsel Muller. But he did say that he hadn’t interfered with Mueller’s work and that he never denied the special counsel any funding or otherwise obstructed his efforts. Whitaker insisted, too, that he never directly or indirectly communicated with the president or anyone in the White House about what he learned as a result of briefings about the Mueller probe.
Republican representatives chided their Democratic colleagues for focusing on Mueller when the oversight hearing was ostensibly meant to cover all of the DOJ’s work. The acting AG sounded grateful for their support, agreeing, “I don’t feel like we’ve talked about many of the things that were planned.”
Doug Collins of Georgia, a Republican, was particularly miffed when Whitaker was questioned by Democrat Karen Bass of California about work he did before joining the DOJ. Bass noted that when Whitaker was executive director of the ethics watchdog Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust (FACT), he recommended investigations of 436 Democrats and Democratic organizations, including Hillary Clinton. She wanted to know whether any such investigations had been initiated by the DOJ since Whitaker took his role, and whether he recused himself from them.
Collins angrily moved to block the question, calling “a point of order.” The request went to a committee vote, which only highlighted the absence of Republicans in attendance. Twenty-one Democrats wanted to hear the answer and eight Republicans sided with Collins. Most of the chairs on the Republican side of hearing were empty.
Still, Whitaker would not answer Bass’s question in full because, he said, doing so would confirm or deny the existence of any investigations. He referred Bass to the FACT website, where she might find that he’d recommended ethics investigations of Republicans as well, but he wouldn’t or couldn’t name any of them.
Even attempts at reconciliation and friendliness fell flat. Democrat Ted Deutch of Florida began his questioning with a short story, remarking that his criminal law professor advised in law school that an attorney should always answer a question with “yes or no,” lest the counselor seem like a bad lawyer. “We know you’re a good lawyer,” Deutch told Whitaker. “Answer yes or no.”
The acting AG didn’t even crack a smile, replying only, “We didn’t go to the same law school.” He also didn’t answer questions with a simple “yes” or “no.”