franckreporter/iStock(WASHINGTON) — One of the most anticipated congressional hearings under a Democratic-controlled House got underway Friday, with acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker pitted against House Democrats who believe he can offer insight into what they see as President Donald Trump's dangerous pattern of politicizing law enforcement.
Only hours earlier, it was unclear whether the hearing before the House Judiciary Committee would even take place, with Whitaker vowing to bail on the session unless Democrats promised not to subpoena him on the same day he would be sitting before Congress for the first time as head of the Justice Department.
More than two weeks ago, Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., sent a letter to Whitaker laying out a series of questions he planned to ask the acting attorney general, including whether Whitaker told Trump about special prosecutor Robert Mueller's probe into 2016 election interference after being briefed on its latest developments.
In his letter, Nadler told Whitaker to consult with the White House in the weeks before his scheduled testimony to determine if Trump would be asserting executive privilege over some of the questions Nadler planned to ask.
"[We] will not accept your declining to answer my questions on the theory that the President may want to invoke his privileges in the future," Nadler wrote.
But Whitaker never responded, and on Thursday morning the committee voted to authorize a subpoena that could be issued to Whitaker the following day, should he refuse to answer certain questions.
The Democrat-led vote prompted the Justice Department to shoot a letter back to Nadler, accusing the committee chairman of trying "to transform the hearing into a public spectacle."
In denouncing the vote as a "premature" move that diverged from a tradition of engaging in "good-faith negotiations" before subpoenaing a witness, the letter said Whitaker would only testify if Nadler's office guaranteed no subpoena would be issued to Whitaker before, during or in the hours right after the acting attorney general's testimony.
By late Thursday evening, Nadler offered that commitment, and the Justice Department announced that Whitaker "looks forward to voluntarily appearing at tomorrow's hearing and discussing the great work of the Department of Justice." Nadler subsequently penned Whitaker, assuring him that he "agreed there is no need to issue a subpoena."
In prepared remarks released prior to his hearing, Whitaker wrote that he would “not disclose” details of his conversations with the president.
"I want to assure you that I will seek to answer the Committee’s questions today, as best as I can,” Whitaker said in the remarks. “But I also must make clear that I will continue the longstanding Executive Branch policy and practice of not disclosing information that may be subject to executive privilege, such as the contents of deliberations or conversations with the President."
Nevertheless, Nadler has promised to press Whitaker on a host of concerns that don’t implicate private conversations with Trump.
In particular, Nadler wants to know why Whitaker refused to recuse himself from oversight of Mueller's probe, even though senior ethics officials in the Justice Department told him he should. And Nadler wants to dig into whether Whitaker's past statements critical of Mueller's efforts — made when Whitaker was a private citizen — may have influenced his supervising the investigation.
"It would be wholly inappropriate for Mr. Whitaker to supervise the special counsel investigation given his documented history of opposition to it," Nadler warned in November, immediately after Trump appointed Whitaker as acting attorney general.
Friday's hearing may not be Whitaker's only congressional hurdle. Just hours before Whitaker's scheduled testimony, Deomocrats on another House panel said they had obtained new information that suggests Whitaker failed to pay back money to be distributed to customers of World Patent Marketing, the company he was associated with that had been accused of scamming customers.
Whitaker served on the advisory board of the company charged by the Federal Trade Commission with perpetrating “a scam that has bilked thousands of consumers out of millions of dollars.”
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