The hearings begin: Acting AG Whitaker clashes with House Judiciary Democrats

Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker’s testimony before the House Judiciary Committee Friday, which was in doubt as late as Thursday evening, featured a number of contentious moments.

Whitaker’s appearance at the 9:30 a.m. hearing ended a subpoena standoff between Democrats and the Justice Department, but he drew a strict line about what questions he would answer. “I do not intend to talk about my private conversations with the president nor White House officials,” Whitaker said several times as Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., pressed him about his communications with the president concerning the probe by special counsel Robert Mueller.

A day before the hearing, the committee voted to authorize Nadler to subpoena Whitaker after the acting attorney general declined to answer certain questions submitted in advance about communications with White House officials and refused to recuse himself from supervising Mueller’s investigation, contrary to the recommendation of the top Justice Department ethics adviser.

Whitaker, who had been appointed last November by President Trump after Attorney General Jeff Sessions resigned under pressure, threatened to not testify before the committee if he was subpoenaed. He finally agreed to appear when Nadler agreed to not issue him with a subpoena, according to a statement by a Justice Department spokesperson.

In his opening remarks before Whittaker’s testimony, ranking member Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., called the hearing “a “dog and pony show,” mockingly suggesting “we just set up a popcorn machine in the back.”

Collins addressed conspiracy claims that the special counsel’s office had leaked a draft copy of Trump’s ally Roger Stone’s indictment to CNN before Stone’s arrest in January. CNN camera crews had staked out Stone’s house in Florida and were able to film his before-dawn arrest. Whitaker said he had no knowledge of leaks to media outlets and that “it was deeply concerning to me how CNN found out.”

“As I sit here today, I don’t have any other information that I can talk about regarding Mr. Stone,” Whitaker said.

Below are more notable exchanges between Whitaker and the Judiciary members questioning him.

“Mr. Chairman, I see that your five minutes is up”

Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., responds after acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker tells him that his five minutes for questions had expired. (Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Whitaker’s attempt to referee his own hearing was not well received.

“In your capacity as acting attorney general, have you ever been asked to approve any request or action to be taken by the special counsel?” asked Nadler.

“Mr. Chairman, I see that your five minutes is up,” Whitaker said. Nadler, as chairman, has the right to talk as long as he likes.

There was laughter and audible “ohhhs” in the room as Nadler smiled and Whitaker attempted to justify his non-answer by saying, “I’m here voluntarily, we’ve agreed to five-minute rounds.”

Nadler struck the gavel to call the hearing to order and rebuffed Collins’s suggestion that it would be a good time to move to the next questioner.

“The attorney general was in the middle of saying something,” said Nadler. “Answer the question, please.”

After Nadler repeated the question a few times to clarify for Whitaker, the acting attorney general said that the special counsel has been dealt with according to law and added, “There has been no event and no decision that has required me to take any action, and I have not interfered in any way with the special counsel’s investigation.”

Nadler then said his time was expired and recognized Collins to begin his questioning.

‘We’re not joking here’

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, questions acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker. (Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Opponents have argued that Whitaker’s appointment to the role of acting attorney general was unconstitutional, as he was never confirmed by the Senate, and Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee asked Whitaker if he’d ever appeared for an oversight hearing.

When Whitaker failed to answer with a yes or no, Nadler interjected, asking Whitaker to respond directly. Lee repeated her question, but as Whitaker began to speak, she interrupted him to reclaim her time.

“I don’t know if your time’s been restored or not,” Whitaker quipped to Lee.

Whitaker’s response prompted another round of laughter in the room when a committee member asked for her time to be restored.

“Mr. Attorney General, we’re not joking here and your humor is not acceptable,” Lee fired back, adding, “Now you’re here because we have a constitutional duty to ask questions. … So I need to ask the question and I need to have my time restored so that you can behave appropriately.”

‘Lynch mob’

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y. (Photo: Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Democratic critics see Whitaker’s initial hiring by the Justice Department and rise to acting attorney general as a reward for attacking the Mueller investigation, which he did repeatedly in the summer of 2017, prior to coming on as Sessions’s chief of staff. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., listed the 37 indictments filed and seven guilty pleas obtained by the special counsel’s office and asked if Whitaker thought that the investigation was unnecessary.

“So, despite all of the evidence of criminal wrongdoing that’s been uncovered, do you still believe that the Mueller investigation is a ‘lynch mob’?” asked Jeffries.

“Congressman, can you tell me specifically where I said that?” asked Whitaker.

“I’d be happy to,” said Jeffries. “In a tweet you issued on August 6 of 2017, you made reference to a note to Trump’s lawyer, ‘Do not cooperate with Mueller’s lynch mob.’ Do you recall that?”

“I recall that I said that I retweeted an article that was titled that. I did not necessarily agree with that position, but my point was that it was an interesting read for those who want to understand the situation,” Whitaker replied, employing the standard social media disclaimer that “retweets are not endorsements.”

Jeffries then pressed Whitaker on his decision to not recuse himself from overseeing the investigation, listing a number of Trump campaign associates who’ve been indicted. Whitaker replied that after consulting with many people, he decided it was not necessary to recuse.

The exchange between Jeffries and Whitaker got off to an adversarial start when the congressman began by saying, “This hearing is important because there are many Americans throughout the country who are confused. I’m confused, I really am. We are all trying to figure out who are you, where did you come from and how the heck did you become the head of the Department of Justice. So hopefully you can help me work through this confusion.”

When Whitaker attempted to reply, Jeffries cut him off, stating, “Mr. Whitaker, that was a statement not a question. I assume you know the difference.”

‘Zero humanity policy’

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., used her five minutes to hammer Whitaker about his role in the Department of Justice’s zero tolerance policy, by which parents of migrants crossing the U.S. border illegally are taken into custody and separated from their children traveling with them.

“Most of these women, most of the men, were seeking asylum, and your department, instead of allowing them their legal right to seek asylum, your department instead imposed a zero humanity policy to prosecute them in mass proceedings,” said Jayapal.  

The zero tolerance policy, which went into effect in April 2018, has resulted in approximately 2,000 children being separated from their parents. According to a report from the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General, the exact number of separated children is unknown. Some of these children might never be reunited with their families.

“Before or after the zero tolerance policy was put into place — and I call it the zero humanity policy — did the U.S. attorneys track when they were persecuting a parent or legal guardian who had been separated from their child?” Jayapal asked Whitaker.

“I don’t believe we were tracking it,” Whitaker responded.

As the questioning continued, Jayapal grew more exasperated. “Do you know what kind of damage has been done to children and families across this country?” she pressed. “Children who will never get to see their parents again? Do you understand the magnitude of that?”

“Congresswoman, I appreciate your passion for this issue and I know that you’ve been very involved in the frontline.”

“This is about more than my passion,” Jayapal interrupted. “This is about the children’s future, Mr. Whitaker. Please answer.”

“The responsibility for the arrest, the detention and together with the custody of the children was handled by DHS and HHS before those people were ever transferred to DOJ custody through U.S. marshals,” Whitaker replied.  

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