Matthew Whitaker Says He Has Not Interfered With the Mueller Inquiry

Matthew Whitaker Says He Has Not Interfered With the Mueller Inquiry

The hearing quickly turned contentious as the committee chairman, Representative Jerrold Nadler, pressed Mr. Whitaker for details about when he had been briefed about the special counsel investigation and the acting attorney general refused to answer.

But under pressure from the chairman, Mr. Whitaker made news: He testified that he had not talked to Mr. Trump or senior White House officials about information: “I do not believe that I have briefed third-party individuals outside of the Department of Justice. I’ve received the briefings myself, and I’m usually the endpoint at that information.”

Mr. Whitaker ultimately declared that though he had been briefed, he had followed “the special counsel’s regulations to a T.”

“There’s been no event, no decision that has required me to take any action, and I’ve not interfered in any way with the special counsel’s investigation,” he said.

Mr. Whitaker told Representative Zoe Lofgren, Democrat of California, that he would not discuss his decision to say last month that the Mueller inquiry was drawing to a close, citing the fact that it is an ongoing investigation.

“It seems to me you did talk about an ongoing investigation,” Ms. Lofgren said, adding that she would like to know what he meant by his comments.

Mr. Whitaker would say only that the special counsel investigation was proceeding consistent with the regulations outlined by Rod J. Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general.

Representative Doug Collins of Georgia, the ranking Republican on the committee, criticized Democrats for obsessing over the special counsel investigation, but he had some questions of his own related to its work.

The first related to the arrest of Roger J. Stone Jr., one of Mr. Trump’s longtime advisers, by the F.B.I. last month. CNN captured the raid of Mr. Stone’s Florida home live with a camera it had set up on the street, and Mr. Collins wanted to know if the news channel had been tipped off.

Mr. Whitaker said the coincidence was “deeply concerning,” but said he did not know of any tip.

“I share your concern with the possibility that a media outlet was tipped off to Mr. Stone’s either indictment or arrest before it was made,” Mr. Whitaker said.

CNN has said its positioning was just a matter of good reporting and luck.

Mr. Collins also asked whether or not Bruce Ohr, a once obscure Justice Department official, still worked there. Mr. Ohr has long been targeted by the president’s allies for contacts he and his wife, who worked as a contractor for Fusion GPS, had with that research firm, which helped compile a salacious dossier about Mr. Trump.

Mr. Ohr is still an employee, Mr. Whitaker said, adding that he could not comment further on a “human resource matter.”

When Mr. Nadler asked Mr. Whitaker if he had ever been asked to approve any request for action to be taken by Mr. Mueller, Mr. Whitaker replied: “Mr. Chairman, I see that your five minutes is up.”

The room then broke into laughter as Mr. Nadler looked up in apparent disbelief, then grinned himself and noted that he did not enforce the five-minute rule during Mr. Whitaker’s opening statement, then asked him to “answer the question, please.”

The exchange was a remarkable breach of decorum between two branches of government. It is highly unusual for a witness, much less an official serving in an acting capacity, to challenge the chairman of a congressional committee that oversees his department.

Mr. Whitaker’s retorts to lawmakers soon irked Democrats. “Mr. Attorney General, we are not joking here,” said Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, Democrat of Texas, during a later exchange. “And your humor is not acceptable.”

As lawmakers pressed him again and again toward discussion of the special counsel’s investigation, Mr. Whitaker made clear that he would much prefer to talk about the department, its policies and its work.

“I think it’s important as we sit here today that we understand that this is not a confirmation hearing, that I’m probably going to replaced by Bill Barr in the next week,” he said in one exchange, referring to William P. Barr, the president’s attorney general nominee.

In unsolicited remarks, Mr. Whitaker said he was “surprised” “that we have talked anything about the work regarding violent crime.”

“We haven’t talked about the opioid crisis,” he continued. “We haven’t talked about religious liberty yet. We haven’t talked about free speech on the college campuses, and whole host of issues that I know are very important to you.”

He also defended his own integrity: “I do want to make clear that I am personally committed to the integrity of the Department of Justice. Since becoming acting attorney general, I have run the department to the best of my ability, with fidelity to the law and to the Constitution.”

Mr. Nadler, the committee chairman, opened the hearing with sharp criticisms of Mr. Whitaker’s conduct while the acting attorney general. In particular he took Mr. Whitaker to task for refusing to recuse himself from overseeing the Russia investigation even after career ethics officials recommended that he do so — a decision that Mr. Nadler said fell “well short of the mark.”

It’s one of many actions that Mr. Nadler said raised important questions about why President Trump chose Mr. Whitaker to run the department: Why did the president get rid of Mr. Sessions? Why did Mr. Whitaker choose to oversee an investigation that could harm Mr. Trump? And what does Mr. Trump hope to get from Mr. Whitaker’s leadership?

Mr. Collins, the ranking Republican on the committee, angrily attacked Democrats in his opening statement, saying that they were interested in carrying out a “character assassination” of Mr. Whitaker and damaging Mr. Trump, not carrying out oversight of the Department of Justice.

Mr. Collins noted that Mr. Nadler had promised not to issue a subpoena to Mr. Whitaker on Friday, saying Democrats had played a “hide and seek game” in securing permission on Thursday to subpoena Mr. Whitaker. And, noting that Mr. Barr would probably be attorney general by the end of next week, he said Democrat were just interested in having a “show” for partisan purposes.

After accusing Mr. Nadler of wasting time, Mr. Collins ended his fiery opening remarks by calling for the committee to adjourn. Mr. Nadler objected, but the request forced a committee vote to keep the hearing going before Mr. Whitaker was even sworn in.

Democrats’ antagonizing of Mr. Whitaker began before he was even in the hearing room on Friday. Four Democratic committee chairmen, including Mr. Nadler of the Judiciary Committee, released a letter they sent Mr. Whitaker on Thursday raising new questions about his work for a Florida company, World Patent Marketing, which is accused of defrauding customers. Mr. Whitaker, they said, had ignored their earlier requests for information. And new information obtained by the House indicated the Mr. Whitaker had not returned funds he had been paid by the company, which the chairmen said it had requested be returned to pay victims of the fraud.

“To date, you have failed to respond to that letter or provide a single document that we requested,” they wrote. “Since that time, 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 alleged fraud, despite your involvement with Mr. Cooper in handling complaints from individuals of the company’s actions.”

A federal judge shut the company down last year and fined it nearly $26 million.

Mr. Whitaker tried to set the tone for the back and forth with lawmakers by saying in his opening statement that he would not answer questions about his conversations with Mr. Trump.

“I will continue the longstanding Executive Branch policy and practice of not disclosing information that may be subject to executive privilege,” he said.

That answer did not satisfy the chairman, who said he expected Mr. Whitaker to consult the Justice Department and White House to return “in the coming weeks” for a transcribed deposition.

“Any questions that are unanswered today or require consultation with the White House will be asked again at that proceeding, and I expect a clean answer or a proper assertion of privilege,” Mr. Nadler said.

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Mr. Trump has persistently and colorfully denied that he coordinated with Russia to sway the 2016 election since he took office. But he was given a new arrow for his quiver this week by Senate investigators, and wasted no time shooting it off.

“The mainstream media has refused to cover the fact that the head of the VERY important Senate Intelligence Committee, after two years of intensive study and access to Intelligence that only they could get, just stated that they have found NO COLLUSION between “Trump” & Russia,” he wrote on Twitter.

Mr. Trump was referring to comments by Senator Richard Burr, Republican of North Carolina and the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who told CBS this week that “we don’t have anything that would suggest there was collusion by the Trump campaign and Russia.”

The committee has been investigating Russia’s election campaign for two years now, and has interviewed hundreds of witnesses.

Mr. Burr’s comments came just a day after Democrats running the House Intelligence Committee reopened a broad Russia investigation.

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