President Donald Trump makes no secret of his disrespect for the other two branches of government. He has taken to describing routine congressional oversight of his administration as “presidential harassment” and often harangues federal judges who rule against him in legal proceedings. Matt Whitaker, Trump’s hand-picked acting attorney general, seems to share that disdain for the separation of powers.
In a contentious appearance before the House Judiciary Committee on Friday, Whitaker frequently adopted a recalcitrant tone toward lawmakers. He seemed allergic to giving a straight answer. Simple yes-and-no questions received laborious and long-winded responses, even when he was quizzed by Republican lawmakers who are sympathetic to the president. To deflect questions about his personal views and professional history, Whitaker repeatedly noted that the hearing wasn’t supposed to be a Senate confirmation hearing. He may be lucky that it wasn’t, since his performance seemed to win him few friends on the committee.
At times, Whitaker’s obstinacy veered into outright hostility. “Have you ever been asked to approve any request or action to be taken by the special counsel?” Jerry Nadler, the committee’s chairman, asked as his allotted time for questions ran out. The acting attorney general didn’t answer the question. “Mr. Chairman, I see that your five minutes are up,” he replied, to loud gasps in the hearing room. When he made another quip about the members’ time limits later in the hearing, Representative Sheila Jackson Lee chastised him. “Mr. Attorney General, we’re not joking here,” she said. “And your humor is not acceptable.”
The hearing foreshadowed what congressional Democrats will likely face as they gear up for a cavalcade of oversight inquiries into the Trump administration. Whitaker appeared before the committee only after clashing with Nadler over the possibility that he would be subpoenaed mid-hearing and compelled to answer questions, a threat that Nadler ultimately dropped. He evaded some questions by raising the specter of executive privilege, which the president can invoke to shield some communications with subordinates from legislative and judicial scrutiny. Most Republicans, meanwhile, used the opportunity to criticize the Democrats’ inquiries as a purely partisan charade.
Few of the Democrats’ targets for congressional oversight rank higher than Whitaker. Trump ousted Jeff Sessions as attorney general in November and tapped Whitaker, Sessions’s chief of staff, to serve in an acting capacity. Whitaker’s past criticism of the Russia investigation raised serious concerns that he would use his temporary position to bend the Justice Department to the president’s whims. Next week, the Senate will likely confirm Bill Barr to serve as the next attorney general, giving Democrats only a brief window to question Whitaker while he serves in the post.
In Friday’s hearing, Whitaker offered only a half-hearted defense of the Justice Department’s traditional independence. “At no time has the White House asked for, nor have I provided, any promises or commitments concerning the Special Counsel’s investigation, or any other investigation,” he asserted in his opening statement. But he also declined to defend the Russia investigation’s legitimacy as Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and FBI Director Chris Wray have publicly done. “Are you overseeing a witch hunt?” asked Representative Steve Cohen. “It would be inappropriate for me to talk about an ongoing investigation,” Whitaker replied. Like many of the president’s other subordinates, his performance appeared tailored to an audience of one.
Whitaker gave the committee some assurances under oath about his handling of the inquiry. “I have not talked to the president about the special counsel’s investigation,” he told lawmakers who expressed concern about whether he gave inside information to the White House. He also said that while he had been briefed on the investigation’s actions, he had not changed its course. “There has been no event or decision that has required me to take any action, and I have not interfered in any way with the special counsel’s investigation,” Whitaker testified. Under the Justice Department’s regulations, the attorney general is required to notify Congress if he or she countermands a special counsel.
Other responses raised more questions than answers. Whitaker demurred when Val Demings, a Florida Democrat, asked whether he had discussed the federal investigation in the Southern District of New York. “I am not going to discuss my private conversations with the president of the United States,” he told her. He also admitted that he had only interviewed for two jobs in the Trump administration: to be Trump’s in-house attorney for responding to the Russia investigation, and the chief of staff position under Sessions. At the end of the hearing, Nadler said Whitaker’s testimony was “not credible” and that he might call him back before the committee to give a closed-door deposition.
“This administration is used to evading any questions they want to evade. They’re used to not having to answer the questions,” he told CNN’s Manu Raju. “We’re going to pursue them we’re going to show them that era is over and that the questions.”
House Republicans, for their part, used Friday’s hearing to cast both Democratic oversight efforts and the Russia investigation as partisan and illegitimate. “This is nothing more than character assassination,” Doug Collins, the committee’s ranking GOP member, said. He raised points of order throughout the hearing to interrupt Democrats who asked questions that he found impertinent. The most pointed outburst came when Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat, asked about donors to a nonprofit that Whitaker once worked for. “If you would ask questions that are actually part of this instead of running for president down there, we could get this done,” Collins said, referring to Swalwell’s rumored aspirations.
Most of Collins’s own questions for Whitaker focused on the spurious allegation by Trump and his allies that the Justice Department tipped off CNN about Roger Stone’s arrest. Whitaker said he was concerned about the possibility, but had no information to suggest it had happened. Jim Jordan, one of Trump’s closest allies on Capitol Hill, grilled Whitaker on Rosenstein’s partially classified memo laying out the scope of Mueller’s inquiry. His questions tried to suggest, without offering any proof, that Rosenstein had directed Mueller to investigate specific people instead of potential crimes. Some Republican lawmakers used their time to ask about violent crime or the opioid epidemic. But most of them focused on the president’s political fortunes, and the danger that federal and congressional inquiries could pose to them.
That danger will likely be forefront on lawmakers’ minds as other Trump administration officials come before congressional committees over the next two years. Steven Mnuchin, the secretary of the Treasury, is negotiating with House Democrats about when he’ll testify about Russian sanctions. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross is slated to appear before the House Oversight Committee in March to answer questions about the 2020 census, a controversial proposal to add a citizenship question to it, and whether he lied to Congress about his involvement in that decision. The House Homeland Security Committee is also sparring with Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen about her potential appearance there.
Whitaker’s rocky appearance underscores the peril that Trump officials will face when they’re brought before Congress. The fight to get him there also shows that they aren’t completely at the mercy of House Democrats. Aggressive invocations of executive privilege and hardball negotiations could gum up the works and slow down the Democrats’ momentum, especially if GOP lawmakers lend the administration a hand. If nothing else, the Whitaker exit interview suggests they’ll be pulling out all the stops to protect the president.