Three months after Democrats won control of the House in the midterm election, they’re about to exercise their power by grilling the nation’s top law enforcement officer in a hearing likely to give insight into how the new majority intends to approach government oversight in the Trump era.
Acting Atty. Gen. Matthew Whitaker is slated to face off Friday against Democratic lawmakers eager to press him about his controversial appointment and his supervision of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Russia’s election meddling.
Whitaker, who will appear before the House Judiciary Committee, will be the first top Trump administration official to testify before a congressional panel controlled by Democrats.
Republicans already have called the hearing a waste of time so Democrats are taking no chances that Whitaker might find an excuse to stay away.
Although he has agreed to voluntarily appear on Friday, the committee chairman, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), is holding a vote Thursday to approve a subpoena that would force Whitaker to show up.
“To be clear, I hope never to use this subpoena,” Nadler said in a statement Wednesday. “Weeks ago, we gave Mr. Whitaker a list of questions we hope to ask him about his communications with the White House and his refusal to recuse himself from oversight of the Special Counsel’s investigation. If he appears on time and ready to answer those questions, the subpoena will be entirely unnecessary.”
Democrats said they will aggressively question Whitaker about his appointment, his relationship with President Trump and his refusal to recuse himself from the special counsel inquiry despite the recommendation of a career Justice Department ethics lawyer that he do so.
They also plan to ask about his ties to an invention promotion company shut down by federal regulators who said it scammed consumers.
“Almost everything about this appointment and tenure has been fishy,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Dublin). “It’s fishy in the way he got appointed. It’s fishy the way he sought and refused counsel on recusal. And his first statement about the Mueller investigation was fishy.”
Whitaker is a short-timer, however. Trump has nominated William Barr, a former U.S. attorney general and a stalwart of the Republican legal establishment, to be the permanent attorney general.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to approve Barr’s nomination on Thursday, and the full Senate is expected to confirm him as soon as next week. It is not clear if Whitaker will remain at the Justice Department or return to private law practice.
Republicans dismissed Friday’s hearing as a sideshow in light of Barr’s pending confirmation.
“The Judiciary Committee’s resources are best invested in talking with Mr. Barr,” Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the committee’s top Republican, said in a statement. “If we’re sincerely interested in conducting oversight of the [Justice Department], we should start with the person who’s about to be there for the long haul.”
Trump named Whitaker acting attorney general on Nov. 7, a day after the midterm election, when he pushed Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions to resign.
A former U.S. attorney in Iowa, Whitaker, 49, had been Sessions’ chief of staff since October 2017 and had built a rapport with Trump in White House meetings, according to Justice Department officials.
Trump has generally been pleased with Whitaker’s performance and has publicly praised him, a sharp change from the insults and taunts he sometimes aimed at Sessions.
Sessions had drawn the president’s ire because he recused himself from overseeing the federal investigation into whether there were ties between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. Supervision then fell to Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod Rosenstein, who in May 2017 appointed Mueller.
Justice Department officials say Whitaker now oversees the Mueller inquiry, though Rosenstein supervises its day-to-day operations, as would be the case in any high-profile investigation.
Democrats have raised questions about how Whitaker can ethically manage Mueller in light of public comments he made before he joined the Justice Department that were critical of the investigation.
Whitaker decided not to step aside from Mueller’s investigation despite the recommendation of a career ethics lawyer who was concerned that Whitaker’s comments created the appearance of a conflict of interest, Justice Department officials have said.
Whitaker confirmed to reporters last week that he had been “fully briefed” on the Mueller investigation. He also said it was “close to being completed,” the first time a Justice Department official has said so.
Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), who sits on the Judiciary Committee, said Democrats will focus on protecting the Russia investigation from interference and will ask about the basis for Whitaker’s assessment that Mueller is almost finished.
"What does he know? Is this accurate?" Raskin said. "Undoubtedly he's opened the door for questions about that issue."
Democrats are keen to haul Trump administration officials before Congress, but it hasn’t been easy to line up their appearances.
Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin rebuffed a request to appear before the House Ways and Means Committee. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar also gave the cold shoulder to the Energy and Commerce Committee.