WASHINGTON — Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker is testifying before Congress for the first time Friday, with Democrats eager to press him on his interactions with President Donald Trump and his oversight of the special counsel’s Russia investigation.
Whitaker’s highly anticipated testimony was in limbo for much of the day Thursday after the Democratic-led House Judiciary Committee approved a tentative subpoena to ensure that he appeared and answered questions. Whitaker responded by saying that he wouldn’t come unless the committee dropped its subpoena threat, which he derided as an act of “political theatre.”
The stalemate broke in the evening after Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, the committee chairman, said the panel wouldn’t issue a subpoena if Whitaker voluntarily appeared for the hearing.
“In light of that commitment, Acting Attorney General Whitaker looks forward to voluntarily appearing at tomorrow’s hearing and discussing the great work of the Department of Justice,” Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said in a statement.
Whitaker is likely in his final days as the country’s chief law enforcement officer as the Senate prepares to vote soon on William Barr, Trump’s pick for attorney general.
Before he goes, Democrats who perceive Whitaker as a Trump loyalist are likely to ask him whether he’s made any commitments to the president about special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation and whether he has shared with Trump any inside information. He’s also likely to be asked about his comment at an unrelated news conference last week that he believed the investigation, into potential ties between Russia and the Trump campaign, was nearly done.
Whitaker had been chief of staff to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was forced out as attorney general last November over the president’s anger that he had recused from the Russia investigation. He was an outspoken critic of the Russia investigation before arriving at the Justice Department in 2017.
The Senate Judiciary Committee voted along party lines Thursday to approve Barr and a vote by the full Senate is expected as soon as next week.
The subpoena dispute Thursday created unexpected drama. The vote by the House panel didn’t issue a subpoena but allowed Nadler to do so if Whitaker was unco-operative. Nadler said he hoped not to have to use the subpoena, but “a series of troubling events over the past few months suggest that we should be prepared.” Nadler said that as late as last week the committee had received reports that some at the department were counselling Whitaker not to appear.
Whitaker insisted Thursday that that was not the case, saying he had “devoted considerable resources and numerous hours to my preparation” and was looking forward to the hearing. He criticized the committee for prematurely and unnecessarily authorizing a subpoena for him even though he had agreed to appear.
“Such unprecedented action breaches our prior agreement and circumvents the constitutionally required accommodation process,” Whitaker said in a statement.
“Based upon today’s action, it is apparent that the Committee’s true intention is not to discuss the great work of the Department of Justice, but to create a public spectacle. Political theatre is not the purpose of an oversight hearing, and I will not allow that to be the case,” he added.