Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker and the powerful head of the House Judiciary Committee found themselves in a high-stakes jousting match on Capitol Hill on Friday morning. The issue: Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
Toward the end of his opening round of questions, Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-NY) pressed Whitaker on if he had ever been asked to approve any moves by Mueller’s team.
“Mr. Chairman, I see that your five minutes is up,” Whitaker replied. “I’m here voluntarily. I agreed to five-minute rounds.”
People in the audience and members of Congress gasped, bug-eyed and slack-jawed. Nadler kept pushing.
“Have you been asked to approve or disapprove a request or action to be taken by the special counsel?” he repeated.
Finally, Whitaker gave an answer.
“I have not interfered in any way with the special counsel’s investigation,” he said.
Whitaker also said he has not shared information about the Mueller probe with President Trump or any senior White House officials.
Later in the hearing, Whitaker insisted he’d never discussed his views about the investigation with Trump, anyone in the White House, or any Trump surrogates, such as Rudy Giuliani, before becoming former Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ chief of staff.
Whitaker’s testimony took yet another combative turn when he made a snide remark about the time to Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX).
“Mr. Attorney General, we’re not joking here and your humor is not acceptable,” she replied.
When Lee asked whether he believes foreign election-meddling is a bigger issue than voter fraud, Whitaker gave a non-answer: “I think for interference in our election system is a very serious and ongoing concern. I also believe that voter fraud is a serious concern.”
Whitaker found a friendly face in Rep. Louis Gohmert (R-TX), who seemed to question why he was even testifying.
“I don’t know what kind of suicide wish you had or whatever, but it’s good to see you,” he said.
Gohmert then read Whitaker portions of his opening statement about crime and the southern border, which the acting attorney general failed to recognize.
A little later, another parliamentary brawl broke out when Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA), started pressing the acting attorney general on his time at the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust (FACT), a conservative watchdog group. Before she could get out the question, Re. Doug Collins (R-GA)–the committee’s top Republican–interjected, saying the topic should be off limits. This hearing was about Justice Department oversight, he argued, and not Whitaker’s personal life.
Collins then made a point of order, trying to block the line of questioning. Nadler, the committee chairman, overruled the point of order. Collins fired back by calling for a vote on his motion. The vote proceeded, with every member present verbally registering whether they sided with Nadler or Collins.
Unsurprisingly, the Democrats voted with Nadler and the Republicans voted with Collins. Democrats won, and Bass got to ask her question: Was Whitaker overseeing any Justice Department probes that FACT had called for during Whitaker’s time there?
After the ruckus died down, Whitaker said he would have recused from any such probes.
More fiery exchanges ensued later in the afternoon, when Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD)—a progressive firebrand—had his turn to ask questions. Raskin started by asking Whitaker about FACT’s funding. Collins again called for a point of order to block the question. At that point, Democrats vastly outnumbered Republicans on the dais; Collins’ point of order was doomed. Nevertheless, he persisted.
Raskin and Whitaker, meanwhile, hollered over each other.
“You have challenged my character!” Whitaker cried.
Nadler banged his gavel furiously. The committee voted down Collins’ quixotic effort to block the FACT question. Raskin then asked Whitaker which donor funded his six-figure salary at the non-profit. Whitaker said the money came through Donors’ Trust, a conservative group whose donors are secret. Raskin intimated that Republican mega-donor and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson could have funneled money through the group to influence Whitaker’s supervision of a Justice Department decision impacting the casino industry. Whitaker said he was recused from that matter.
Before he had even opened his mouth, his hearing before the House Judiciary Committee had already exploded into a parliamentary fist-fight. Nadler opened the hearing with a methodical statement criticizing Whitaker and asking about his financial statement. Then Rep. Collins, the top Republican on the committee, lambasted his Democratic counterpart.
“We had the show yesterday,” Collins said, “We now have had the curtain drop down, and Mr. Whitaker, I guess your confirmation hearing’s here. You’ve only got five days left on the job.”
Collins was referring to a dramatic back-and-forth that unfolded Thursday between the Justice Department and the committee after its members voted along party lines to let Nadler subpoena Whitaker during the hearing if he chose to do so. Whitaker responded by threatening to skip the hearing. Then Nadler backtracked, saying he wouldn’t use the subpoena.
In his opening statement, Collins ripped into Nadler for the controversy, calling the entire project a “dog and pony show.” If members wanted to scrutinize Whitaker’s personal finances, Collins said, they should run for Senate.
Collins then moved to end the hearing. Members voted against that motion vocally, and then Collins called for a roll-call vote. The roll-call vote ensued, Democrats voted to keep the hearing going, and Nadler proceeded to swear in Whitaker.
Whitaker also defended his management of Mueller’s probe.
“There has been no change in the overall management of the special counsel investigation,” he said in the statement. “I have and will continue to manage this investigation in a manner that is consistent with the governing regulations.”