Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker testifies before the House Judiciary Committee — live blog

"I have not talked to the president about the special counsel's investigation," Whitaker tells members of Congress

Published February 8, 2019 11:35AM (EST)

Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker is sworn in before testifying at a House Judiciary Committee hearing on oversight of the Justice Department, at Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on February 8, 2019.  (Getty/Saul Loeb)
Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker is sworn in before testifying at a House Judiciary Committee hearing on oversight of the Justice Department, at Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on February 8, 2019. (Getty/Saul Loeb)

Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker appeared before the House Judiciary Committee on Friday to take lawmakers questions about oversight of the Justice Department. Whitaker's testimony comes one day after the Senate Judiciary Committee narrowly voted to advance William Barr's nomination to replace Jeff Sessions as attorney general along party lines. A full Senate is expected to confirm Barr as President Donald Trump's chief law enforcement officer next week.

The hearing ended just before 3:30 p.m. ET. It went on for nearly six hours.

The hearing featured many contentious moments and heated exchanges between Whitaker and some Democrats on the panel. At one point, Whitaker interrupted committee chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) to note that his time was up, drawing some laughter and gasps from members of Congress.

We live blogged Whitaker's testimony. Here are the highlights.

Whitaker grilled on Trump's family separation policy

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) pressed Whitaker on the family separations at the U.S.-Mexico border, detailing the hundreds of women and men who had been ripped apart from their children at the border. Japayal said the migrants she met at the border were seeking asylum.

"I'm sorry there was no family separation policy. There was a zero tolerance policy," Whitaker said.

The Trump administration's "zero tolerance" prompted widespread outcry. It required criminal prosecution for all families who enter the United States illegally, scrapping a practice, known as "catch and release," of releasing migrants apprehended at the border while their immigration cases are pending. The administration attempted to deal with "catch and release" by separating some families at the border, placing the parents in detention as adults and sending the children to the Department of Health and Human Services.

Whitaker reiterated that "there was no family separation policy," though a leaked draft memo revealed that the administration explored separating families as a way to separate families as a way to deter migrants from coming to the southern border. He also said that the administration was not tracking the children who were separated by from their parents or legal guardian after they were apprehended at the border.

"Before or after the zero tolerance policy was put into place and I call it the zero humanity policy, did the U.S. attorneys track when they were prosecuting a parent or legal guardian who had been separated from their child? There’s only one answer to this. It’s gone through the courts," Jayapal said.

"Did we track it?" Whitaker asked.

Jayapal asked, "Did you track when you were prosecuting a parent of legal guardian who had been separated from a child?"

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

A report from the Government Accountability Office and a Health and Human Services inspector general report have since revealed that thousands of migrant children may have been separated at the border before the policy was publicly announced. Asked if the Justice Department gave advanced notice to other agencies before the policy was put into place, Whitaker repeatedly referred to a press conference by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions in May 2018.

"The responsibility for the arrest, the detention and together with the custody of the children was handled by DHS and HHS before those people were ever transferred to DOJ custody through the US Marshals," Whitaker added.

Whitaker says he hasn't been involved in discussions of any pardons, including ones for Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen

Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) asked Whitaker about any talks inside the Justice Department about potential pardons for former Trump associates or advisers Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, Michael Flynn and Michael Cohen.

"Congressman, as I've been acting attorney general, I have not been involved in any discussions of any pardon, even and including the ones you're discussing," Whitaker said.

Mueller has charged 34 people and secured guilty pleas from six Trump associates or advisers, including former campaign chairman Paul Manafortformer deputy campaign manager Rick Gatesformer national security adviser Michael Flynnformer Trump attorney Michael Cohen and former campaign aide George Papadopoulos. Roger Stone pleaded not guilty last month to seven charges, including one count of obstruction of an official proceeding, five counts of false false statements and one count of witness tampering.

Whitaker also told Swalwell that he believes Mueller is honest.

"I have no reason to believe he's not honest so, yes, I do believe he's honest," Whitaker said. He added that he does not believe Mueller is "conflicted," as Trump has claimed.

Whitaker also revealed that he has not received Mueller's report.

Whitaker denies that Trump lashed out at him on two occasions

Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker refuted a CNN report that alleged President Trump lashed out at him on at least two occasions after his former lawyer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to lying for lying to Congress. Trump was allegedly mad that federal prosecutors who Whitaker oversees "filed charges that made him Trump look bad," CNN reported at the time.

Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) if Trump had "lashed out" at him after Cohen pleaded guilty, Whitaker said, "No, he did not."

Below is the exchange:

Cicilline: "Did the President lash out at you after Michael Cohen's guilty plea for lying to Congress about a Trump organization project to build a tower in Moscow?"

Whitaker: "The President specifically tweeted that he had not lashed out."

Cicilline: "I'm asking you Mr. Whitaker, did the President lash out at you? Not asking what he tweeted. I don’t have a lot of confidence in the veracity of his tweets. I'm asking you under oath."

Whitaker: "Congressman that is based on an unsubstantiated…"

Cicilline: "Sir, answer the question: yes or no, did the President lash out at you about Mr. Cohen's guilty plea?"

Whitaker: "No he did not."

Democratic lawmaker tells Whitaker: "Keep your hands off the Mueller investigation"

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) began his five-minute questioning by asking Whitaker, "Who are you? Where did you come from? And how the heck did you become the head of the Department of Justice?"

"Hopefully you can help me work through this confusion," Jeffries added.

Whitaker began speaking but Jeffries quickly cut him off, saying, "Mr. Whitaker, that was a statement, not a question. I assume you know the difference."

Jeffries then proceeded to ask Whitaker to confirm the identified criminal acts, indictments, and guilty pleas and prison sentences that have emerged from special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation so far.

"One by one, all of the president's men are going down in flames," Jeffries said. "Where there is smoke, there is fire. There is a lot of smoke emanating from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue right now."

"Let's be clear. The investigation into Russia's attack on democracy is not a witch hunt, it's not a fishing expedition, it's not a hoax, it's not a lynch mob, it's a national security imperative. The fact that people suggest otherwise comes dangerously close to providing aid and comfort to the enemy," he added.

"In your final week," Jeffires warned, "keep your hands off the Mueller investigation."

Republican congresswoman calls Whitaker's hearing a "joke"

Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.) said she's disappointed over the House Judiciary Committee's handling of Whitaker's hearing.

"You know, I have to say that I'm very disappointed in this hearing. You know, I ran for Congress to get things done, and at the beginning of this, you know, we were told that this is about asking about DOJ oversight and some legitimate questions," she said. "And here we are, it's nothing but character assassination, harassment of our witness, and it's really disappointing."

Lesko said she was initially mad about the hearing, but now she's sad.

"At first I was mad. I have to tell you, when this thing started hours ago, I went outside and a reporter asked me, what do you think of the hearing? I said, 'It's a joke.' But now I'm just sad," she said. "I'm sad because we were on the floor just a little while ago talking about how we are honoring our late representative (John) Dingell in talking about bipartisanship and how we need to get things done — and, yet, here we are a blatant political show that doesn't help anything. I imagine if American people are watching this right now, they would be shaking their heads, like what are you doing there? We need to work together to get things done."

Whitaker explains why Trump chose him to be acting attorney general

The acting attorney general detailed why he thinks Trump selected him to serve as the nation's top law enforcement official, pointing to his past experience as a U.S. Attorney and his work as chief of staff for Sessions that would let him "continue the momentum at the Department of Justice we had established in addressing these important priority issues, like reducing violent crime, combating the opioid crisis and others."

Whitaker said earlier that he does not believe Trump's was aware of Whitaker's past public statements, in which he denounced the special counsel's investigation. Whitaker also said he had no direct conversation about Mueller's investigation with anyone at the White House in the immediate months before he was selected as Sessions' chief of staff in 2017.

"I believe the president chose me to be the acting attorney general for a couple reasons. First, I had served previously in the department as a United States attorney, which is a very important position . . . in the administration of justice. And, for 13 months, I was the chief of staff for Attorney General Sessions, and I have done the full year with him side by side. Obviously, he made the decisions, but I gave him advice and counsel. And I was aware of everything that was going on at the Department of Justice that obviously Sessions wasn't recused from," Whitaker said. "And so I think the president was comfortable that, to continue the momentum at the Department of Justice, we had established in addressing these important priority issues, like reducing violent crime, combating the opioid crisis and others that the president felt I was best positioned to do the duties of attorney general."

Trump has denied taking Whitaker's pulse on the investigation — although he did not have to do so, since Whitaker has broadcast his opposition to the investigation during television appearances and in op-eds.

Democratic lawmaker offers advice to Whitaker on answering the committee's questions

"General Whitaker, you and I are both lawyers. On my first day of [criminal] law, my professor said if someone asks you a 'yes or no' question, don't just repeat the question, answer 'yes' or 'no,' otherwise during your career people will think you're not a good lawyer," Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) said. "We know you're a good lawyer, let's heed that advice going forward."

"We did not go to the same law school," Whitaker joked in response.

"We didn't, but the advice is good, nonetheless," Deutch said.

Whitaker says he's "very comfortable" with his decision not to recuse himself from overseeing Mueller's investigation

Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) asked Whitaker about his decision not to recuse himself from overseeing special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and allegations of collusion or obstruction of justice.

"I'd like to take a moment to better understand your decision not to recuse yourself from the supervision of the special counsel's investigation. Isn't it a fact, sir, that you received your final ethics guidance on this matter on December 19, 2018?" Johnson asked.

Whitaker did not answer the question and instead said, "Congressman, we laid out very explicitly the process that we went through, and ultimately the decision whether or not to recuse was my decision. I'm very comfortable with that decision."

Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), the committee chairman, stepped in and blasted Whitaker for avoiding the panel's questions. He said it's "getting a little tiresome hearing you stall and wasting the member's time."

Whitaker reportedly began overseeing Mueller's probe not long after stepping into the acting attorney general role in early November, just after Trump fired Jeff Sessions, who had been publicly scorched by the president ever since he recused himself from Mueller's investigation. While serving as Sessions' chief of staff, Whitaker criticized the investigation — yet, he went against the advice of a Justice Department ethics official and did not recuse himself from overseeing the probe.

"Congressman, let me be clear. It was my decision to make," Whitaker told Johnson.

Democratic lawmaker Steve Cohen asks Whitaker if he thinks Mueller's probe is a "witch hunt." He dodged the question.

Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) asked Whitaker if he believes special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation is a "witch hunt." Whitaker, who is overseeing the special counsel's probe, dodged the question. However, he noted he has not denied funds to Mueller's team to continue their work.

Trump has repeatedly called the probe a "witch hunt" and a "hoax." Whitaker has previously penned an op-ed titled "Mueller's investigation of Trump is going too far."

Here's how the full exchange between Cohen and Whitaker went down:

Cohen: "Would you say the special counsel's investigation is a witch hunt? Are you overseeing a witch hunt?"

Whitaker: "Congressman, as I've mentioned previously, the special counsel's investigation is an ongoing investigation, and so I think it would be inappropriate for me to . . ."

Cohen: "But you wouldn't oversee a witch hunt, would you? You'd stop a witch hunt, wouldn't you?"

Whitaker: "Congressman, it would be inappropriate for me to talk about an ongoing investigation."

Cohen: "You said you were not interfering with the special counsel's investigation. Have you denied him any funds he's requested at all?

Whitaker: "Congressman, I can tell this is an important issue for you . . ."

Cohen: "It's an important issue for the American public and for the whole world."

Whitaker: "Congressman, to answer your question directly, I have not denied any funds to the special counsel's investigation."

Whitaker says the Justice Department "investigates crimes – not individuals"

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) pressed Whitaker on a memo that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein sent to special counsel Robert Mueller about the scope of the special counsel's investigation. In a fiery exchange, Jordan asked Whitaker if Rosenstein gave "the special counsel the authority to investigate specific Americans."

"I would just refer the congressman to the general practices of the Department of Justice that we investigate crimes and not individuals," Whitaker replied.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) admonishes Whitaker after he makes a snide remark about her time

"I don't know if your time has been restored or not," Whitaker said to laughter in the room.

"Mr. Attorney General, we are not joking here, and your humor is not acceptable," Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) replied. "Now, you're here because we have a constitutional duty to ask questions, and the Congress has the right to establish government rules. The rules are that you are here, so I need to ask the question. I need to have my time restored so that you can behave appropriately, and I will behave appropriately as a member of the Judiciary Committee."

The Texas Democrat was trying to ask Whitaker if he had a confirmation hearing and if it has been more than ten years since he has testified before Congress.

Whitaker says he is concerned that CNN may have been tipped off to Roger Stone's house arrest

Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, questioned Whitaker about the baseless claim that CNN might have been tipped off to the arrest of Roger Stone, a longtime associate and informal adviser to President Donald Trump.

"I share your concern with the possibility that a media outlet was tipped off to Mr. Stone's either indictments or arrest before it was made — that information was available to the public," Whitaker said.

Ever since CNN aired dramatic video footage of Stone last month as he was taken into custody on charges of obstruction, false statements and witness tampering, Trump and other Republicans have claimed, without offering supporting evidence, that the network must have been tipped off by the special counsel since CNN was the only outlet with a report stationed outside of Stone's Florida house that night. CNN has denied these claims, saying there was no forewarning and that it relied on "reporter's instinct" and acted on "unusual grand jury activity" that made it seem like Stone's indictment was imminent.

Whitaker: "I have not interfered in any way with the special counsel's investigation"

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) questioned Whitaker about special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation. Nadler asked Whitaker if he and Trump had discussed the ongoing probe. In response to Nadler's questions, Whitaker insisted that he has "not interfered in any way" with the ongoing probe.

"In your capacity as acting attorney general, have you ever been asked to approve any action or request to be taken by the special counsel?" Nadler asked.

Amid a heated back-and-forth, Nadler asked, "In your capacity as acting attorney general, have you ever been asked to approve any request or action to be taken by the special counsel?"

"Mr. Chairman, I see that your five minutes is up," Whitaker replied, drawing some laughter and gasps from the panel. "I'm here voluntarily. We have agreed to five-minute rounds."

Nadler then repeated the question.

"I want to be very specific about this, Mr. Chairman, because I think it's going to allay a lot of fears that have existed among this committee, among the legislative branch largely and maybe amongst some American people," Whitaker added. "We have followed the special counsel's investigations 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."

Whitaker: I have not talked to President Trump about Mueller's investigation

House Judiciary Committee chairman Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) pressed Whitaker about Mueller's probe. Nadler asked Whitaker if he had discussed the ongoing investigation with Trump.

"Yes or no? Nadler responded. "Have you communicated any information in that briefing to President Trump?"

After a long pause, Nadler continued, "It's a 'yes or no' question. Have you communicated anything you learned in that briefing about the investigation to President Trump? Yes or no?"

Whitaker then replied, "Mr. Chairman, as I've said earlier today in my opening remarks, I do not intend today to talk about my private conversations with the president of the United States. But, to answer your questions, I have not talked to the president about the special counsel's investigation."

By Shira Tarlo

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