With just days left in his service as the Acting Attorney General, Matthew Whitaker flatly told the House Judiciary Committee on Friday that he had not meddled or inserted himself into the Special Counsel investigation of Russia interference in the 2016 elections, and had not funneled any type of information about that probe to President Donald Trump.
“I have not interfered in any way with the Special Counsel’s investigation,” said Whitaker, who was installed at the Justice Department when President Trump pushed out former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, angry over how Sessions had dealt with the Russia investigation.
“I have not talked to the President of the United States about the Special Counsel investigation,” Whitaker told lawmakers, though he quickly refused to answer questions about his communications with Mr. Trump.
“I do not intend to talk about my private conversations with the President of the United States,” Whitaker added.
From the start, Republicans denounced the hearing as a dog and pony show, aimed not at oversight of the Justice Department, but with the goal of attacking President Trump.
“We’re going to have plenty of theatrics,” said Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA), who sternly defended both the President and Whitaker from the outset.
“Bring your popcorn – I’m thinking about just setting up a popcorn machine in the back, because that’s what this is becoming,” Collins said.
In the first round of questioning from Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY), the Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Whitaker sparred with Nadler over his questions, at one point saying that Nadler’s time had run out, prompting howls of laughter from Democrats on the panel.
“You wouldn’t oversee a witch hunt, would you?” Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) asked Whitaker, using the favored phrase of President Trump about the Mueller investigation.
“Congressman, it would be inappropriate for me to comment on an ongoing investigation,” Whitaker answered.
Republicans meanwhile used their time to explore their contention that the Russia investigation has been out of control – and biased against the President – from the start, as Collins asked Whitaker if there had been a leak from inside the Justice Department to CNN about the January indictment and arrest of political operative Roger Stone.
“Mr. Collins, I share your concern with the possibility that a media outlet was tipped off,” Whitaker answered.
Other GOP lawmakers focused on regular issues before the Justice Department, like illegal drugs, and border security, as Republicans said there was no need for Democrats to haul Whitaker before Congress, especially since he will be replaced next week by William Barr, whose nomination awaits action in the full Senate.