(NBC) – Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker told lawmakers Friday he has not shared information he’s received about special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe with President Donald Trump or any senior White House officials, nor has he personally taken any actions to interfere in it.
“We have followed the special counsel’s regulations to a T,” Whitaker said at a House Judiciary Committee hearing.
But the much-anticipated first appearance of a high-ranking Trump administration official before the newly-empowered Democratic majority produced early fireworks on the issue of executive privilege, as Whitaker said he reserved the right not to answer questions that involve his personal conversations with the president.
At one point, when asked by House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., about whether he had to approve any actions by the special counsel, Whitaker pointed out that it appeared the time allotted for his round of question had expired.
“Mr. Chairman, I see that your five minutes is up,” Whitaker said to gasps from the hearing room, but laughter from Nadler. “I am here voluntarily, we have agreed to five minute rounds.”
Whitaker ultimately answered.
“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,” he said.
Democrats hoped Friday’s hearing would address their concerns about whether Whitaker’s promotion to acting attorney general last November was part of an effort by the president to undercut the Mueller probe. The former attorney general, Jeff Sessions, had recused himself from overseeing its work.
Republicans — and later Whitaker himself — accused Democrats of trying to stage a retroactive confirmation hearing.
“It is your five minutes and you can ask the questions that are of most interest to you,” Whitaker said before a break in the proceedings. “But as I sit here today, I would like to talk about the incredible work that we have been doing.”
The Senate will vote next week on William Barr’s nomination as the new attorney general.
But Democrats did press Whitaker on issues he has had authority over in the meantime. In his opening statement, Nadler focused on the fact that Whitaker ignored the advice of the Department of Justice’s ethics officials that he recuse himself based on his prior criticism of the counterintelligence probe as a cable news pundit.
“You decided that your private interest in overseeing this particular investigation — and perhaps others from which you should have been recused — was more important than the integrity of the department. The question that this committee must now ask is: why?” Nadler said.
Whitaker said that Trump “did not ask for, and I did not provide any commitments, promises concerning” the Mueller investigation, and that he did not discuss his views about it with him or other senior White House officials prior to becoming Sessions’ chief of staff.
Several Democrats asked Whitaker if he thought the Mueller probe was a “witch hunt,” as Trump has repeatedly called it. Whitaker only repeated that he would not comment on the investigation.
Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., asked Whitaker if Mueller was honest, then asked him to say directly to the president that Mueller was not conflicted in directing the investigation.
“I am not here to be a puppet to repeat the terms and words you say,” Whitaker responded.
Whitaker was appearing before the committee voluntarily. But Nadler had repeatedly requested that Whitaker work out well in advance of the hearing whether he would not be able to answer questions of interest to the panel’s Democrats.
Whitaker did not respond to the questions 48 hours in advance as Democrats requested, so the panel voted Thursday to authorize the use of a subpoena that, they said, could be issued Friday if Whitaker was evasive. That led the Justice Department to say Whitaker would not appear under a subpoena threat. Hours later, Nadler wrote to Whitaker saying they would agree to withhold any subpoena, and instead work with the Justice Department to resolve issues.
Still, Nadler said during Friday’s hearing that he intended to call Whitaker back for a private deposition in the coming weeks after working with the Justice Department and the White House to identify specific issues in which Trump would invoke executive privilege.
Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, accused the Democrats of overreaching so early into their new majority.
He used his opening statement to accuse Democrats of using Whitaker’s appearance simply for “political theater” designed to attack Trump, and made a motion to adjourn the hearing before it even started.
“This is nothing more than a character assassination,” he said.
Republicans mostly used their question time to pivot from the counterintelligence investigation to raise other issues, including the opioid crisis, sanctuary cities and other immigration issues, and abortion.