- The Washington Times - Friday, February 8, 2019

Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker told the House Judiciary Committee during a testy hearing Friday that he has not interfered with special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.

Mr. Whitaker told lawmakers that he has not curtailed Mr. Mueller’s probe nor denied funding for it. But Democrats repeatedly grilled him on allegations he was picked by President Trump to lead the Justice Department as a means of quashing the special counsel’s investigation.

Since taking control of the House in January, Democrats have pushed to question Mr. Whitaker about his views on the special counsel. He is the first Trump Cabinet official to appear before a Democrat-led House panel.

The hearing came ahead of Mr. Whitaker’s final days as acting attorney general. Mr. Trump’s pick for the position, William Barr, is expected to be confirmed next week.

In more than seven hours of testimony, Mr. Whitaker defended his involvement with Mr. Mueller’s sprawling, 20-month investigation of Russia meddling in the 2016 election.

He told lawmakers that he has “not talked to the president of the United States about the special counsel’s investigation,” adding that he has not spoken with senior White House officials, either.

“We have followed the special counsel’s regulations to a T,” Mr. Whitaker said. “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.”

But Mr. Whitaker frustrated Democrats by repeatedly declining to offer specific information about the probe. He told lawmakers that it would be “inappropriate” to discuss an ongoing investigation.

Committee Chairman Rep. Jerry Nadler, New York Democrat, told Mr. Whitaker they will get more definitive answers from him, even if it means dragging him before the panel after he leaves the Justice Department.

“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,” Mr. Nadler said.

Mr. Whitaker sparred with Democrats throughout the hearing. During one feisty exchange, Mr. Whitaker cut off Mr. Nadler as he asked a question.

“Mr. Chairman, your five minutes are up,” he responded.

Perhaps the angriest exchange came between Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, Texas Democrat, and Mr. Whitaker. As she questioned him about whether he passed along information about the Mueller probe to Mr. Trump or his former chief of staff John Kelly, Mr. Whitaker made a snide remark about the lack of time left for her questions.

“We’re not joking here,” Ms. Jackson Lee said. “Your humor is not acceptable.”

The fighting was not limited to Mr. Whitaker and Democrats, as Republicans also battled with their colleagues from across the aisle.

The committee’s top Republican, Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, called the hearing “an exercise in character assassination.” He also described it as pointless, noting that Mr. Barr will be taking over the Justice Department next week.

Mr. Collins also attempted to stop Rep. Eric Swalwell, California Democrat, from asking Mr. Whitaker about a nonprofit he led and if it received foreign donations. Mr. Swalwell told him to sit down at the witness table and be Mr. Whitaker’s lawyer. In response, Mr. Collins accused the lawmaker of campaigning for the White House.

But Mr. Whitaker didn’t answer the question. Mr. Swalwell asked him who funded the nonprofit known as the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust, but Mr. Whitaker said he didn’t know.

In a new revelation Friday, Mr. Whitaker said he discussed joining the White House legal team, which likely would have put him at odds with the Mueller probe.

Mr. Whitaker said he had talks with then-White House Counsel Donald McGahn’s chief of staff, but they only discussed his experience and never spoke of 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.

Mr. Whitaker also defended his decision to ignore the advice of Justice Department ethics officials and recuse himself from the Mueller probe.

He said the ethics officials told him it was “a close call” and that his statements that recognized the “professionalism and competence of the special counsel” should also be weighed.

“I made that decision and I stand by that decision,” Mr. Whitaker said.

Although Mr. Whitaker repeatedly reminded lawmakers that his days leading the Justice Department were numbered, Democrats repeatedly told him to steer clear of the special counsel’s probe.

“In the final week, keep your hands off the Mueller investigation,” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, New York Democrat.

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