Matthew Whitaker to Congress: I haven’t meddled with Mueller’s Russia investigation ‘in any way’
Acting Attorney General Matthew G. Whitaker shot down a number of the more wild speculations that have plagued him since his tenure at the Justice Department began more than three months ago.
Accused of being a plant by President Trump to squelch the special counsel’s investigation, he told Congress he hasn’t meddled at all.
“We have followed the special counsel’s regulations to a T,” Mr. Whitaker told the House Judiciary Committee during six hours of testimony. “There has been no decision that has required me to take any action, and I have not interfered with special counsel’s investigation in any way.”
He also assured lawmakers that he had not discussed the Russia investigation with Mr. Trump or with senior White House officials since helming the Justice Department.
Democrats and their allies have questioned why Mr. Trump bucked the Justice Department’s traditional line of succession, which would have made Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein the clear pick to act as attorney general after Mr. Trump ousted Jeff Sessions in November.
Mr. Whitaker, though, said he was chosen because of his involvement in carrying out key Trump administration priorities at the Justice Department during the 13 months he served as Mr. Sessions’ chief of staff.
“I think the president was comfortable to continue the momentum at the Department of Justice we had established in addressing these important priority issues, like reducing violent crime, the opioid issue that he felt I was doing the duties of the attorney general,” he said.
The hearing was labeled an oversight hearing, called ostensibly to get a sense for Justice Department operations.
Instead the new Democratic majority focused on Mr. Whitaker himself, asking about his personal handling of various matters, and delving into his time before the Justice Department.
Several Democrats prodded Mr. Whitaker about a non-profit advocacy group he ran, the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust.
Rep. Eric Swalwell, California Democrat, asked whether the group received foreign donations. Mr. Whitaker said he didn’t know.
Rep. Karen Bass, another California Democrat, wanted to know whether Mr. Whitaker was overseeing any investigations that FACT had called for. The acting attorney general said he would be recused from any such probes.
Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the ranking Republican on the committee, said the questions had little to do with Justice Department operations, and said they seemed more like a confirmation hearing. He also called that odd because a new permanent attorney general is likely to be confirmed by the end of this week.
William P. Barr cleared his committee vote last Thursday and is slated for a confirmation vote in the full Senate by Friday.
Mr. Whitaker, in his testimony, took exception to several specific news reports he said had bungled his actions.
One, a November 2018 New York Times report, said Mr. Whitaker in 2017 had interviewed to join Mr. Trump’s legal team as an “attack dog” against special counsel Robert Mueller. If picked, that position would have pitted him against the Justice Department he now leads.
Mr. Whitaker confirmed Friday that he did discuss a position with then-White House Counsel Donald McGahn’s chief of staff, but reports of him as an attack dog were overblown. He said they only discussed his legal background and never spoke about Mr. Mueller.
“They did not want to talk about the investigation because the folks were dealing with that investigation, and that’s why they wanted someone who had been unrelated to the investigation and the campaign,” Mr. Whitaker said.
He also denied a December CNN report that Mr. Trump angrily lashed out at him after the president’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to multiple crimes. The report said Mr. Trump twice berated his attorney general, furious that prosecutors managed by Mr. Whitaker filed the charges.
But Mr. Whitaker told lawmakers the report wasn’t true. He said that not only did the president not lash out at him, but no one contacted him on Mr. Trump’s behalf to express displeasure.
Democrats said they found Mr. Whitaker’s answers either evasive or unpersuasive.
“Your failure to respond fully to our questions here today in no way limits the ability of this committee to get answers in the long run, even if you are a private citizen when we finally learn the truth,” warned Rep. Jerrold Nadler, New York Democrat and the panel chairman.