The hearings begin: Acting AG Whitaker clashes with House Judiciary Democrats

Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker’s testimony before the House Judiciary Committee Friday, which was in doubt as late as Thursday evening, got off to a tumultuous start.

Whitaker’s appearance at the 9:30 a.m. hearing ended a subpoena standoff between Democrats and the Justice Department, but he drew a strict line about what questions he would answer. “I do not intend to talk about my private conversations with the president nor White House officials,” Whitaker said several times as Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-NY, pressed him about his communications with the president concerning the probe by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

A day before the hearing, the committee voted to authorize Nadler to subpoena Whitaker after the acting attorney general decline to answer certain questions submitted in advance about communications with White House officials and Whitaker’s refusal to recuse himself from supervising Mueller’s investigation, contrary to the recommendation of the top Justice Department’s ethics adviser.

Whitaker, who had been appointed last November by President Trump after Attorney General Jeff Sessions resigned under pressure, threatened not testify before the committee if he was subpoenaed. Whitaker finally agreed to appearing when Nadler committed to not subpoenaing him, according to a statement by a Justice Department spokesperson.

In his opening remarks before Whittaker’s testimony, ranking member Doug Collins, R-Ga., called the hearing “a “dog and pony show,” mockingly suggesting “we just set up a popcorn machine in the back.”

Collins addressed conspiracy claims that the special counsel’s office leaked a draft copy of Trump’s ally Roger Stone’s indictment to CNN before Stone’s arrest in January. CNN camera crews had staked out Stone’s house in Florida and were able to film his before-dawn arrest. Whitaker said he had no knowledge of leaks to media outlets and that “it was deeply concerning to me how CNN found out.”

“As I sit here today, I don’t have any other information that I can talk about regarding Mr. Stone,” Whitaker said.

Below are more contentious moments between Whitaker and the Judiciary members questioning him.

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Iowa Republican senatorial candidate former U.S. Attorney Matt Whitaker looks on before a live televised debate at Iowa Public Television studios, Thursday, April 24, 2014, in Johnston, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
UNITED STATES - July 23: Matt Whitaker (R) Iowa is interviewed at Roll Call office in Washington, D.C. (Photo By Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call)
Iowa Republican senatorial candidates, retired CEO Mark Jacobs, left, and former U.S. Attorney Matt Whitaker, talk after a live televised debate at KCCI-TV studios, Thursday, May 29, 2014, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Iowa Republican senatorial candidate, former U.S. Attorney Matt Whitaker, looks on before a live televised debate at KCCI-TV studios, Thursday, May 29, 2014, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
FILE - In this April 11, 2014, file photo, Iowa Senate candidate Matt Whitaker speaks during the Iowa Republican Party's annual Lincoln Day dinner in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. A GOP TV spot comparing castrating hogs to cutting spending, and Democrat Bruce Braley’s comment that lawyers like him are better suited to serve on the Senate Judiciary Committee than “an Iowa farmer” like U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, have raised the Iowa’s open Senate seat on the GOP’s list of winnable races in the 2014 elections. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File)
Iowa Republican Matt Whitaker officially announces his plans to run for the U.S. Senate in 2014 during a news conference, Monday, June 3, 2013, in Ankeny, Iowa. The former U.S. attorney said that he will seek the seat being vacated by retiring five-term Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
FILE - In this April 11, 2014, file photo, Iowa Senate candidate Matt Whitaker speaks during the Iowa Republican Party's annual Lincoln Day dinner in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. A GOP TV spot comparing castrating hogs to cutting spending, and Democrat Bruce Braley’s comment that lawyers like him are better suited to serve on the Senate Judiciary Committee than “an Iowa farmer” like U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, have raised the Iowa’s open Senate seat on the GOP’s list of winnable races in the 2014 elections. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File)
UNITED STATES - July 23: Matt Whitaker (R) Iowa is interviewed at Roll Call office in Washington, D.C. (Photo By Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call)
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Whitaker’s attempt to referee his own hearing was not well received.

“In your capacity as acting attorney general, have you ever been asked to approve any request or action to be taken by the special counsel?” asked Nadler.

“Mr. Chairman, I see that your five minutes is up,” Whitaker said. Nadler, as chairman, has the right to talk as long as he likes.

There was laughter and audible “ohhhs” in the room as Nadler smiled and Whitaker attempted to justify his non-answer by saying, “I’m here voluntarily, we’ve agreed to five-minute rounds.”

Nadler struck the gavel to call the hearing to order and rebuffed Collins’s suggestion that it would be a good time to move to the next questioner.

“The attorney general was in the middle of saying something,” said Nadler. “Answer the question, please.”

After Nadler repeated the question a few times to clarify for Whitaker, the acting attorney general said that the special counsel has been dealt with according to law and added, “There has been no event and no decision that has required me to take any action, and I have not interfered in any way with the special counsel’s investigation.”

Nadler then said his time was expired and recognized Collins to begin his questioning.

‘We’re not joking here’

Opponents have argued that Whitaker’s appointment to the role of acting attorney general was unconstitutional, as he was never confirmed by Senate, and Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee asked Whitaker if he’d ever appeared for an oversight hearing.

When Whitaker failed to answer with a yes or no, Nadler interjected, asking Whitaker to respond directly. Lee repeated her question, but as Whitaker began to speak, she interrupted him to reclaim her time.

“I don’t know if your time’s been restored or not,” Whitaker quipped to Lee.

Whitaker’s response prompted another round of laughter in the room when a committee member asked for her time to be restored.

“Mr. Attorney General, we’re not joking here and your humor is not acceptable,” Lee fired back, adding, “Now you’re here because we have a constitutional duty to ask questions. … So I need to ask the question and I need to have my time restored so that you can behave appropriately.”

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