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Whitaker clashes with Democrats in combative House hearing

Acting Atty. Gen. Matthew Whitaker told Congress on Friday that he has not interfered with the special counsel’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and has not discussed the probe with President Trump or other senior White House officials.

The testimony came in a contentious House Judiciary Committee hearing. Democrats repeatedly clashed with Whitaker as they pressed him for details about his appointment, his supervision of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and his relationship with Trump.

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Democrats are concerned that Trump appointed Whitaker as the temporary attorney general to undercut Mueller’s investigation. Whitaker had criticized the inquiry before he joined the Justice Department.

“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,” Whitaker testified.

He later added that he had “not spoken to the president about the special counsel’s investigation. … There’s been no event, no decision that has required me to take any action, and I’ve not interfered in any way with the special counsel’s investigation.”

Whitaker said at a news conference last month that he was “fully briefed” on the Mueller investigation and that it was nearing a conclusion. On Friday, he repeatedly declined to provide more clarity about those statements.

To the frustration of Democrats, Whitaker refused to provide details of his conversations with Trump and other senior White House officials, citing the “long-standing executive branch practice of not disclosing information that may be subject to executive privilege.”

During a combative back-and-forth, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), the committee chairman, grew so frustrated that he said he would recall Whitaker for a deposition, saying he expected him to provide “clean” answers or to properly assert executive privilege.

Republicans said the hearing was political theater and a waste of time because Whitaker won’t stay in the job much longer

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted Thursday to support William Barr, Trump’s pick for attorney general, and the Republican-led Senate is expected to confirm him in coming weeks.

Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the committee’s ranking Republican, said the hearing was “nothing more than a character assassination” and an attempt to “get at the president.”

Whitaker spoke highly of Mueller’s character and said the prosecutor’s mandate was “consistent with the appointments of other special counsels.” But he declined to rebut the president’s frequent characterization of the investigation as a “witch hunt.”

“It would be inappropriate for me to talk about an ongoing investigation,” he told Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), who asked him whether he agreed with the president’s assessment.

FBI Director Christopher A. Wray and Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod Rosenstein have publicly said Mueller is not on a “witch hunt.”

Although Whitaker stated he hadn’t discussed the Mueller probe with Trump, he declined to provide similar assurances regarding the prosecution of Michael Cohen, Trump’s longtime personal lawyer.

“I’m not going to discuss my private conversations with the president of the United States,” Whitaker said in response to a pointed question by Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.) about the Cohen case.

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Cohen was sentenced to three years in federal prison after pleading guilty to charges linked to his arranging of hush money payments to two women who said they’d had affairs with Trump and lying to two congressional committees about trying to arrange a Moscow hotel and condominium deal for Trump during the 2016 presidential race. The investigation of Cohen was spearheaded by federal prosecutors in New York.

Whitaker took over from Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions on Nov. 7, the day after the midterm election, when Trump forced the resignation of his top law enforcement official.

Trump soured on Sessions after the attorney general recused himself from the Russia investigation in early 2017, and the president frequently bashed the former senator on Twitter and in interviews.

Whitaker had served for a year as Sessions’ chief of staff and built a rapport with Trump.

Before joining the department, Whitaker had criticized Mueller’s investigation in columns and in TV interviews.

Democrats sharply criticized Whitaker for refusing to recuse himself from supervising Mueller’s inquiry despite the advice of the Justice Department’s top career attorney, who was concerned his past comments created the appearance of a conflict of interest, department officials said.

“You decided that your private interest in overseeing this particular investigation — and perhaps others from which you should have been recused — was more important than the integrity of the department,” Nadler said.

Whitaker said he decided not to step aside because it was a “close call” and he didn’t want to hamstring future attorneys general.

After Sessions recused himself from the federal investigation, its supervision fell to Rosenstein. Rosenstein appointed Mueller in May 2017 and he continues to oversee the day-to-day operations of the investigation. Rosenstein is expected to step down in coming months.

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