Matthew Whitaker’s hearing in the US House of Representatives Judiciary Committee became combative on Friday as Democrats pressed the acting attorney general for information on the Russia probe led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
Mr Whitaker, an appointee of Donald Trump, at one point caused the committee and audience members to gasp in disbelief when he avoided answering a question from the chairman by telling him his time had run out.
“Mr Chairman, I see that your five minutes is up," he said in response to Jerrold Nadler.
The heated exchange arrived after the committee chairman asked Mr Whitaker whether he had “ever been asked to approve any request or action to be taken by the special counsel”.
Mr Whitaker then appeared to respond to the audible disbelief caused by his response, saying, “I am here voluntarily. We have agreed to five minute rounds.”
He then remained defiant throughout the meeting, telling lawmakers he would invoke executive privilege in declining to discuss “the contents of deliberations or conversations with the president.”
Democrats repeatedly accused him of running out the clock by giving them evasive or repetitive answers in the hearing.
In one case, he refused to answer Democratic congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee’s questions with a yes or no, and made a flippant remark about whether the time she had lost on the clock had been restored before he answered her questions.
Jerry Nadler asks Matthew Whitaker if he has ever been asked to approve any request or action to be taken by the Special Counsel.
Whitaker: "Mr. Chairman, I see that your five minutes is up."
The response in the room is remarkable. Via CSPAN2 pic.twitter.com/UAcOyulX46— Kyle Griffin (@kylegriffin1)February 8, 2019
“Mr Attorney General, we are not joking here and your humour is not acceptable,” she said.
But Mr Whitaker did say he had not discussed the Russia probe with the president, either before he worked at the Justice Department or after he became acting attorney general.
“I have not talked to the president of the United States about the special counsel’s investigation,” he said.
During the hearing on Friday, Mr Nadler threatened to force Whitaker to go back in front of the committee for a deposition.
Justice Department ethics officials have recommended the acting attorney general recuse himself from overseeing the Russia investigation, a step he chose not to take.
Mr Whitaker told lawmakers he has never tried to withhold funding from the special counsel’s office and never spoke with members of the president’s inner circle about his views on the probe as a private citizen before he joined the Justice Department in 2017.
It was likely the first and last time that Mr Whitaker will testify as acting attorney general. Mr Trump’s nominee for attorney general, William Barr, is expected to face a Senate confirmation vote next week.
Additional reporting by Reuters