Acting U.S. attorney general reluctant to talk Mueller probe in stormy House hearing

Acting U.S. attorney general Matthew Whitaker faced a sharply divided congressional committee Friday, with Democrats pressing him on his relationship to President Donald Trump and Republicans dismissing the hearing as a political stunt and even moved to end it before it began.

Matthew Whitaker, appearing voluntarily after subpoena threat, said he hasn't interfered with Mueller

Acting U.S. attorney general Matthew Whitaker testifies on Capitol Hill on Friday in Washington. Democrats were eager in what are likely his last remaining days in the role to press him on his interactions with President Donald Trump and his oversight of the special counsel's Russia investigation. (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

Acting U.S. attorney general Matthew Whitaker faced a sharply divided congressional committee Friday, with Democrats pressing him on his relationship to President Donald Trump and oversight of the special counsel's Russia investigation.

Whitaker laid the groundwork for a day of friction with Democrats by saying in his opening statement that while he would address their questions, he would not reveal details of his communications with the Republican president.

He told lawmakers that there has been no change since his arrival in the job in the "overall management" of special counsel's Robert Mueller investigation. He said that he has run the Justice Department to the best of his ability, with "fidelity to the law and to the Constitution."

"I have not talked to the president of the United States about the special counsel's investigation," Whitaker told a U.S. House of Representatives judiciary committee hearing, adding that he has not taken any action in the probe or interfered "in any way."

Democrats have expressed concerns about Whitaker's previous partisan statements about the Mueller probe, his resumé and not being in the line of succession to succeed Jeff Sessions.

"Mr. Whitaker, like everyone else at the Department of Justice, you are entitled to your political opinions," Democratic committee chair Jared Nadler said at the start of Friday's hearing.

"But when career officials at the department recommended that you take steps to mitigate your apparent conflicts of interest, Mr. Whitaker — when they told you that your public criticism of the special counsel was bad for the department and bad for the administration of justice, you ignored them."

In the first significant hearing of the Democratic-led commitee, chair Jerrold Nadler had his hands full maintaining order on occasion as the two parties bickered over lines of questioning and rules of order. (J. Scott Applehwite/Associated Press)

Whitaker said he sought counsel, but defended his decision on Friday.

"I had no conflict of interest," he insisted.

"Ultimately, the decision whether or not to recuse was my decision."

Whitaker and Nadler then clashed when the witness informed the chair his five-minute time limit to ask questions had run out. At another point, he asked Nadler "what is the basis" for a question.

Whitaker is likely in his final days as the country's chief law enforcement officer because the Senate plans to vote soon on confirming William Barr, Trump's pick for attorney general.

"There has been no change in the overall management of the special counsel investigation," Whitaker said. "I have and will continue to manage this investigation in a manner that is consistent with the governing regulations."

Jamie Raskin, Democrat from Maryland, reacts as Whitaker tells committee chair Jared Nadler his time has expired for questioning. (Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)

Trump has assailed the Mueller investigation as a "witch hunt," but when pressed repeatedly by Democrat Steve Cohen of Tennessee on whether he agreed with that characterization of the probe, Whitaker declined to answer, citing the ongoing investigation.

Asked by Cohen if he would stop a "witch hunt," Whitaker said it would be "inappropriate" to answer that question.

Barr testified in December that he does not believe Mueller would be involved in a "witch hunt."

Whitaker did allow under separate questioning that he had no reason to believe Mueller wasn't honest.

'Dog and pony show': ranking Republican

Democrats who perceive Whitaker as a Trump loyalist asked about Whitaker's comment last week that he believed the investigation into potential ties between Russia and the Trump campaign was nearly done. Whitaker said he didn't have anything to add to that previous comment, but offered that Mueller would determine when his inquiry was finished.

Republicans, meanwhile, dismissed the hearing with the lame-duck attorney general as a political stunt and even moved to end it before it began.

"I'm thinking maybe we just set up a popcorn machine in the back," said Doug Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on the House judiciary committee.

Republican Doug Collins assailed the purpose for the hearing and unsuccessfully called for it to be adjourned. (Jose Luis Magana/Associated Press)

Collins called the hearing a "dog and pony show" and criticized Democrats for disclosing derogatory information about Whitaker's business dealings hours before the hearing. He called for an adjournment, a motion that was easily defeated.

Republicans on Friday sought to focus on subjects such as apparent leaks within the FBI and Justice Department and the flow of drugs from China and Mexico.

Whitaker had been chief of staff to Sessions, who was forced from the cabinet last November as Trump seethed over Sessions's decision to step aside from overseeing the Russia investigation.

Whitaker was an outspoken critic of the investigation before arriving at the Justice Department in 2017. He said Friday he was a private citizen at the time, with his only knowledge of the investigation what was publicly reported.

Trump insists there was "no collusion" between his campaign and Russia, although there is no federal crime of collusion. The president could be damaged politically were there to be evidence of conspiracy or obstruction of justice.

In the previous session of the House, the Republican-led intelligence committee released a report early in 2018 indicating that Trump's campaign had not colluded with Russia during the election, which the Democrats on the panel panned as a premature conclusion.

Weren't tracking separations, Whitaker admits

Elsewhere, Washington Democrat Pramila Jayapal questioned Whitaker about the administration's controversial policy of separating children from adult migrants who crossed the border between ports of entry. 

"I don't believe we were tracking that," Whitaker admitted.

"The responsibility for the arrest, the detention and together with the custody of the children was handled by DHS [Department of Homeland Security] and HHS [Health and Human Services] before those people were ever transferred to DOJ custody through the U.S. marshal," he added.

Democrats also inquired about Whitaker's past business dealings, too. Nadler and three other House committee chairmen released documents that they said show Whitaker failed to return thousands of dollars that were supposed to be distributed to victims of a company's alleged fraud.

Former Republican governor Chris Christie has known U.S. President Donald Trump for 17 years, but says the advice he's offered hasn't always been heeded. He talks to Anna Maria Tremonti about his time working on Trump's campaign, and having the president's ear. 23:49

Whitaker has come under scrutiny for his involvement with the invention promotion company, which was accused of misleading consumers and has been under investigation by the FBI.

Whitaker's highly anticipated testimony Friday had been in limbo after the Democratic-led committee approved a tentative subpoena to ensure that he appeared and answered questions. Whitaker responded by saying that he would not come unless the committee dropped its subpoena threat, which he called an act of "political theatre."

The stalemate ended Thursday evening after the committee chairman, Nadler of New York, said the committee would not issue a subpoena if Whitaker appeared voluntarily.

With files from Reuters and CBC News

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