Watch Live: Acting Attorney General Whitaker Faces House Judiciary Committee

February 08, 2019
 
Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker is being questioned by the House Judiciary Committee, now controlled by Democrats.

Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker is being questioned by the House Judiciary Committee, now controlled by Democrats.

James Liam Doyle/NPR

Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker might not get a cordial welcome on Friday from the House Judiciary Committee — but at least he may show up.

The interim boss of the Justice Department looked as though he might appear after trading salvos with the House panel's Democratic chairman, Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., about the conditions under which he would testify.

Whitaker was willing to travel up to Capitol Hill and talk to lawmakers voluntarily, the Justice Department said — but not under subpoena, and he demanded a guarantee on Thursday that Nadler not slap him with a subpoena at the hearing in the event he didn't answer a question.

Nadler, had threatened to do just that if committee members didn't get answers to questions they wanted; Democrats, who make up the panel's majority, voted to authorize a subpoena if necessary.

Ultimately, the Democrats said they'd hold off, so long as Whitaker were prepared to appear before the Judiciary Committee on Friday morning.

"If you appear before the committee tomorrow morning and if you are prepared to respond to questions from our members, then I assure you that there will be no need for the committee to issue a subpoena on or before February 8," Nadler wrote.

"To the extent that you believe you are unable to fully respond to any specific question, we are prepared to handle your concerns on a case-by-case basis, both during and after tomorrow's hearing."

The pinch hitter

Nadler and Democrats want to question Whitaker about how he got his job and the way he's overseen the investigation into Russia's attack on the 2016 presidential election being run by special counsel Robert Mueller.

Although Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein is understood to have continued overseeing the investigation after President Trump elevated Whitaker, the acting attorney general said last month he's been "fully briefed" on Mueller's work and that he expected it to conclude soon.

Critics have said they worried about a hand-picked advocate for the White House sitting at the pinnacle of the Justice Department as it continues an inquiry that could have major consequences for Trump or others in his inner circle.

Whitaker was a skeptic of Mueller before he came to work for the department, but he said his criticisms were based on the views of an outsider and that he's since gotten a better understanding of the case as acting attorney general.

Rosenstein also has tried to reassure people outside the Justice Department that irrespective of who is actually supervising the special counsel's office — whether him or Whitaker or the next likely attorney general, William Barr — the Mueller investigation would be handled "appropriately."

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted on Thursday to recommend that the full Senate confirm Barr as attorney general, which could happen as soon as next week.

Republicans control a majority in the Senate and they've had at least one Democrat — Alabama Sen. Doug Jones — commit publicly that he too would vote for Barr.

Nadler and Democrats on Friday, meanwhile, likely also want to ask Whitaker about more than the Russia investigation.

They want answers from the Justice Department about immigration policy and border enforcement as the slow-burning feud continues down Pennsylvania Avenue over more barriers on the Southern border with Mexico.

Differences over a barrier were the crux of a dispute between Democrats and Trump that led to the recent partial government shutdown — and the government could shut down again unless negotiators can make progress on a deal to fund the Department of Homeland Security.

Story source: NPR