WASHINGTON — Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker appeared before the House Judiciary Committee on Friday in the first major hearing that showcases the new Democratic majority’s oversight of the Justice Department and Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.
But early on, Whitaker struck a note of defiance as Judiciary Committee chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) asked him about his interactions with President Donald Trump and others in the White House.
“Have you ever been asked to approve any request or action to be taken by the special counsel?” Nadler asked.
“Mr. Chairman, I see that your five minutes is up, so I am…,” said Whitaker, as there were groans through the hearing room.
Whitaker was referring to time limits that are placed on members as they question witnesses. But it unusual for a witness to claim that a member’s time has expired. Usually they are more deferential to the committee chairpersons.
“I am here voluntarily, we have agreed to five-minute rounds,” Whitaker said.
Nadler smiled. Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) interjected, “I think that is a good place to end the five-minute rule.”
Whitaker eventually answered, “We have followed the special counsel’s regulations to a T. There has been no event, no decision that has required me to take any action. And I have not interfered in any way with the special counsel’s investigation.”
So far, the hearing has not shed much light on the status of the Mueller investigation — and it may not.
Whitaker said he had not talked to President Trump about the investigation, but said he intends to keep his conversations with the president private. He also signaled that he would give limited answers about the investigation itself.
The tense atmosphere was apparent from the start, as Nadler told Whitaker that as he answered questions, he would “expect either a clean answer or a proper assertion of privilege claimed by the president.” The committee on Thursday authorized a subpoena if Whitaker refused to answer questions.
Collins chided the Democrats for the hearing, characterizing it as “character assassination.”
He asked Whitaker about the FBI arrest of Roger Stone, the political operative who has longtime ties to Trump. CNN was outside Stone’s Fort Lauderdale, Fla., home when the early morning arrest took place, and captured the dramatic moments of the arrest.
“I am aware of that, and it was deeply concerning to me as to how CNN found out about that,” Whitaker said.
But after Collins raised the claim that CNN had been tipped off of the arrest by federal authorities, Whitaker said he did not “know of any other special counsel’s office notice or DOJ notice to media outlets of Mr. Stone’s indictment or his arrest.”
CNN’s David Shortell said the outlet was at the scene because of a series of clues that an indictment was imminent. Stone also had been telling news outlets for some time that he thought he may be a target of Mueller’s investigation.