Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker testified before the House Judiciary Committee Friday in a frequently contentious hearing, marking the first major panel of many more to come with Democrats in control of the House. That shift in the atmosphere was palpable Friday.
"This administration is used to evading any questions they want to evade ... we are going to pursue them and show that era is over," House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler said, concluding the hearing that spanned nearly six hours.
Democrats grilled Whitaker on his interactions with President Trump and his oversight of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation, while some Republicans questioned things like the arrest of indicted Trump associate Roger Stone and the situation at the border. Here are some highlights to recap the hearing:
- Whitaker said he has not spoken with Mr. Trump about the Mueller probe and has given the White House no assurances about the probe.
- Republicans saw today's hearing as a "dog and pony show," and the ranking Republican, Rep. Doug Collins, moved quickly to adjourn the hearing, which was voted down 24-10.
- Whitaker, asked whether he was presiding over a "witch hunt" (as Mr. Trump frequently refers to the Mueller probe), he would say only that it would be "inappropriate" for him to talk about an ongoing investigation, and he pointed out that he has not denied the special counsel any funds, nor has he interfered with the special counsel's investigation.
- Pressed by GOP Rep. Jim Jordan on whether Mueller has an overly broad mandate, Whitaker replied, "In my experience, it's consistent with the appointments of other special counsels."
- Republicans took offense at the Democratic line of questioning regarding his position as former executive director of conservative group Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust, saying that the questions were not within the scope of the hearing. Ranking member Rep. Doug Collins argued that "this is not a confirmation hearing." The questions were allowed by Nadler.
Hearing concludes as Nadler calls Whitaker's testimony inconsistent "at best"
Nadler called for the hearing to adjourn at 3:23 p.m.
Before he did, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee submitted questions for the record, and Nadler pointed out that Whitaker owes the committee answers on communications and statements related to the special counsel investigation.
Nadler declared Whitaker's testimony inconsistent "at best."
Whitaker questioned on border security
Rep. Sylvia Garcia, D-Texas, questioned Whitaker on whether he believed cities on the border experienced a higher level of crime, despite statistics showing drops in crime in border cities such as El Paso.
"Illegal immigration through our southern border is dramatically and negatively affecting the crime rate of our cities," Whitaker said, saying that most migrants do not remain in border cities.
He also said that the Justice Department was not involved with handling children that are encountered at the border, and so he was therefore not aware of how many migrant children remain separated from their parents.
"I would have to refer you to HHS and DHS," Whitaker said, referring to the Health and Human Services and Homeland Security Departments.
Whitaker questioned on rise in hate crimes
Rep. J. Luis Correa, D-Calif., asked Whitaker if he believed white supremacist hate crimes were on the rise as the FBI has reported. He also asked if the Justice Department was ignoring domestic terrorism.
"We are not ignoring that," Whitaker said. "I agree with the FBI's statement that those crimes are on the rise. I also believe that we have adequately deployed our resources."
Jayapal questions Whitaker on child separations
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., asked impassioned questions of Whitaker on family separations at the border. She pressed him repeatedly on whether the Justice Department tracked instances when parents or guardians were separate from children. Whitaker admitted that the Justice Department did not.
"Do you understand the magnitude of [childhood separations]?" Jayapal asked.
"The responsibility for the arrests, the detention, and together with the custody of the children was handled by DHS and HHS," Whitaker replied.
Raskin engages in combative line of questioning
Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., asked Whitaker which donors provided the funding to his previous organization, conservative group Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust. Whitaker made more than $1.2 million in his nearly two years heading that organization.
Ranking Member Doug Collins argued that Raskin's question was outside the scope of the hearing.
"This is not a confirmation hearing," Ranking Member Doug Collins said, protesting Raskin's combative questions.
Whitaker, Lieu spar on whether a sitting president can be indicted
Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., asked Whitaker to say whether the U.S. Constitution included a provision that dictates that a sitting president cannot be indicted. Whitaker refused to confirm that no such line exists in the Constitution. He instead repeated Justice Department guidelines which say that a sitting president cannot be indicted.
Exchange over Whitaker's former watchdog group gets heated
Whitaker's role in running the conservative watchdog group FACT became a point of contention when Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell tried to ask Whitaker whether the group ever received any foreign donations.
Collins, the top Republican, attempted to stop Swalwell from asking the question. But Swalwell told Collins to sit down and be Whitaker's lawyer if he was trying to shield him.
Whitaker eventually said he didn't believe there were foreign donations, but admitted he doesn't have comprehensive knowledge of the group's finances.
Democrat Hakeem Jeffries grills Whitaker
Democratic Rep. Hakeem Jeffries took a rapid-fire approach to questioning Whitaker, going through the list of Trump associates who have been charged or convicted of crimes -- like Roger Stone.
Whitaker agreed that each of those individuals has indeed been indicted or convicted.
Then Jeffries asked if Whitaker referred to Mueller's investigation as a "lynch mob" in a tweet. Whitaker responded that he had simply retweeted an article with that headline because he found the article interesting.
Rep. Karen Bass resumes questioning
Bass asked Whitaker whether the Justice Department had opened any investigations into Democrats that he, as the executive director of the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust (FACT), had recommended be opened. Whitaker said that the organization had also recommended ethics investigations into Republicans.
When Bass asked which Republicans, Whitaker referred her to the group's website to find out.
"I don't have time to look at the website," Bass said.
Whitaker said that he was not aware of the Justice Department opening any investigations recommended by the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust.
Chairman, ranking member spar over "point of order"
When Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., began questioning Whitaker on his time as chairman of a conservative nonprofit, ranking member Rep. Doug Collins called a "point of order" claiming her question did not fall within the boundaries of a Judiciary Committee hearing.
After some back and forth, the committee voted to table the point of order along party lines. The point of order was tabled and Bass continued with her questioning.
Whitaker spars with Deutch during questions
Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., began his questioning by telling Whitaker that he had received advice in law school to just answer "yes or no" questions instead of restating the question.
"We did not go to the same law school," Whitaker replied.
Whitaker said that he did not discuss his views on the Mueller investigation with the White House between interviewing for the attorney general chief of staff position and joining the DOJ.
"The concern that we have was that there was no Senate confirmation here," Deutch said, wrapping up his questioning.
Whitaker defends decision not to recuse from Russia investigation
Whitaker continued to defend his decision not to recuse from overseeing the Mueller investigation, after recommendations from career DOJ officials that he do so.
"I consulted with career ethics officials, I consulted with senior staff, I consulted with the Office of Legal Counsel. It was my choice to make," Whitaker said.
Rep. Henry Jackson, D-Georgia, accused Whitaker of obstruction.
"I'm not obstructing, I'm answering your questions," Whitaker said. He listed officials with whom he consulted, including confirmed appointees, and reiterated that it was ultimately his choice to make.
Whitaker asked if he presides over a "witch hunt"
Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., asked Whitaker whether he believed he was presiding over a "witch hunt." Mr. Trump often refers to the Mueller investigation as a "witch hunt."
"It would be inappropriate for me to talk about an ongoing investigation," Whitaker said. He also said that he had not denied the special counsel any funds, nor had he interfered with the special counsel's investigation.
Jim Jordan questions Whitaker on scope of Mueller probe
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, pressed Whitaker on whether the Mueller's mandate was too broad.
"In my experience, it's consistent with the appointments of other special counsels," Whitaker said on the Mueller investigation.
Jordan tried to get Whitaker to say that Mueller was improperly investigating certain people in or associated with the Trump administration. Whitaker declined to specifically answer, but said, "We investigate crimes, not people."
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee to Whitaker: "Your humor is not appropriate"
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, asked Whitaker a "yes or no" question on whether he had appeared at a congressional hearing before. After some pushback from Republicans on the panel, Whitaker questioned whether Jackson Lee had enough time to remaining to ask him questions.
"Your humor is not appropriate," Jackson Lee shot back. Her time was restored.
Jackson Lee also asked Whitaker whether he had spoken to Mr. Trump about the Mueller investigation. Whitaker said that he could not comment on the investigation.
"So I'm assuming that's a no?" Jackson Lee asked.
"I don't think you can assume anything on that," Whitaker said.
Whitaker to Nadler: Mr. Chairman your five minutes are up
In an exchange that shocked the room, Whitaker told Nadler that his five-minute time limit was up -- an extremely rare comment for any witness, even the acting attorney general, to make to the chairman of a committee.
"Mr. Chairman, I can see that your five minutes is up," Whitaker said, eliciting both laughs and gasps.
Whitaker says he hasn't talked with Trump about Mueller probe
Answering questions from Nadler, Whitaker said he hasn't spoken with Mr. Trump or senior White House officials about the Mueller probe.
Whitaker says he hasn't given White House assurances on Mueller probe
Whitaker, in his opening remarks, said he hasn't given the White House any assurances about Mueller's probe, and the White House has not asked him to do so.
Top Republican tries to shut down the hearing
Top Republican on the committee Rep. Doug Collins asked to adjourn the hearing, a move that was rejected by a voice vote.
But then Republicans pushed for a roll call on the vote, forcing each member to go on the record. In total, 24 members voted against adjourning, and 10 voted for it.
"Bring your popcorn," says animinated top Republican
Rep. Doug Collins, the top Republican on the committee, called the whole hearing a dog and pony show, and said they should have popcorn for everyone.
"Bring your popcorn," Collins said, adding maybe they just "set up a popcorn machine" in the back.
Top Republican says this hearing is a "character assassination"
House Ranking Member Doug Collins, a Republican, started out his remarks with a fiery opening statement.
Collins said the hearing has "nothing to do" with Justice Department oversight, and simply comes down to a "character assasination."
No need to resort to a subpoena — "for now," Nadler says
Nadler mentioned the battle over whether Whitaker would show up, suggesting that since Whitaker showed up there isn't a need to resort to a subpoena -- "for now," he added after pausing ever so briefly.
Nadler begins hearing right on time
Nader kicked off the hearing exactly at 9:30 a.m., first remembering the late Rep. John Dingell, whose passing was announced Thursday night.
Nadler then launched into his opening statement. Here is the prepared text of some of that opening statement:
|"Your failure to respond fully to our questions here today in no way limits the ability of this Committee to get the answers in the long run--even if you are a private citizen when we finally learn the truth. And although I am willing to work with the Department to obtain this information, I will not allow that process to drag out for weeks and months. The time for this Administration to postpone accountability is over."|
"We have laid all of the groundwork for this hearing out in the open. We have given you months to prepare. We have publicly documented every request we have made to you. We have provided our Republican colleagues with a meaningful opportunity to weigh in on the process. We have nothing to hide from you. We hope you have nothing to hide from us."
Read Whitaker's prepared testimony
Here is Whitaker's testimony, as prepared.
Whitaker suggests he will exercise executive privilege over conversations with Trump
Whitaker, in his opening testimony, said he will indeed exert executive privilege over his conversations with the president.
"Although I cannot speak about my communications with the president, I do want to make clear that I am personally committed to the integrity of the Department of Justice," Whitaker wrote.
Democrats allege Whitaker failed to return funds for victims
House Democrats allege in a letter sent Friday morning that Whitaker failed to return thousands of dollars that should have been distributed to the victims of a scam by World Patent Marketing.
Reps. Elijah E. Cummings, Jerrold Nadler, Frank Pallone Jr., and Adam Schiff, all committee chairmen, sent a letter to Whitaker looking for full compliance with a request sent in mid-November about his involvement with the company. The Democrats claim new records prove Whitaker failed to return the money intended to be distributed to victims.
"[Y]ou have failed to respond to that (Nov. 14) letter or provide a single document that we requested," their letter said. "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's alleged fraud, despite your involvement with Mr. Cooper in handling complaints from individuals of the company's actions."
Will Whitaker invoke executive privilege?
What remains to be seen is whether -- or perhaps more likely, how frequently -- Whitaker will invoke executive privilege.
But Democrats, and perhaps Republicans, are sure to press him on a slew of matters, including his involvement with Mueller's investigation and interactions with the president in recent months. Whitaker is still the nation's top law enforcement officer until the Senate confirms attorney general nominee William Barr.
In the letter Nadler sent Whitaker last week, he said he wants to ask about his decision not to recuse himself from the special counsel's investigation, whether he has ever been briefed on the special counsel's investigation, whether Mr. Trump contacted him about former Trump attorney Michael Cohen, and whether Mr. Trump ever talked about firing or reassigning personnel in the Office of the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, among other things.
Nadler also told Whitaker that he would "view with considerable skepticism any effort to decline to answer on the basis that the inquiry is related to an ongoing criminal investigation."