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Democrats to acting AG Whitaker at Russia hearing: 'We're not joking here'

"Your humor is not acceptable," panel member Sheila Jackson Lee told Whitaker Friday.

By
Nicholas Sakelaris
Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker is sworn in to testify before the House Judiciary Committee hearing on oversight of the Justice Department, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Friday. Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI
Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker is sworn in to testify before the House Judiciary Committee hearing on oversight of the Justice Department, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Friday. Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI | License Photo

Feb. 8 (UPI) -- Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker fielded questions from House lawmakers Friday about conversations he had with President Donald Trump that discussed the Justice Department's Russia investigation.

The hearing before the House judiciary committee began Friday morning and Democrats on the panel immediately launched into questioning about the matter. Whitaker, who took over for Jeff Sessions on an interim basis last fall, told the panel he hasn't gotten in the way of special counsel Robert Mueller.

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"I have not interfered in any way with the special counsel investigation," he told the committee. "We have followed the special counsel's regulations to a T."

The hearing was a chance for the new Democrat-controlled House to flex authority with a new inquiry into Russian interfering in the 2016 U.S. election. The then-Republican-led committee investigated the matter last year and shut it down before the 116th Congress arrived. Now with the chamber majority, the Democrat-led committee is making another push to find answers.

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Whitaker said he is ultimately in charge of the Mueller investigation, though he'll likely only be in the job for another week. Next week, the Senate will vote on the nomination of William Barr as attorney general. Thursday, the Senate judiciary committee voted along party lines, 12-10, to advance Barr's nomination.

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In his opening statement, judiciary committee chairman Rep. Jerry Nadler said he wanted to ask Whitaker if he helped orchestrate Sessions' departure. Whitaker received the questions weeks ago so they would know ahead of time which were subject to executive privilege.

"The time for this administration to postpone accountability is over," Nadler said.

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Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., asked Whitaker if he'd shared his feelings on Mueller's investigation before he joined the Justice Department.

"I can assure this committee that before appointing me to this position, the president did not ask for and I did not provide any promises beforehand," Whitaker answered.

The hearing became terse several times when lawmakers peppered Whitaker for simple "yes" or "no" answers. On those occasions, Whitaker often repeated the question -- and refused to give the direct answers he was asked for.

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"We're not joking here and your humor is not acceptable," said Texas Rep. and panel member Sheila Jackson Lee. "We have a constitutional duty to ask questions."

Jackson asked if Whitaker would've notified the FBI if a hostile foreign power contacted him offering dirt on his opponent during his own failed campaign for Senate. After initial hesitation, Whitaker said Jackson's question was a hypothetical, and that he likely would've notified authorities.

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Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., tried to adjourn the hearing before it started, saying it was an attempt at assassinating Trump's character. His vote to adjourn failed, 24-10.

Later, Collins asked about the indictment last month of longtime Trump friend Roger Stone, noting that CNN had a reporter in front of Stone's Florida home when the arrest was made.

"It was deeply concerning to me how CNN found out about that," Whitaker said, noting that no other media outlets appeared to be tipped off.

Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, showed a heavily redacted memo and questioned whether it included the names of American citizens being investigated by the FBI. Whitaker declined to answer, saying the Justice Department investigates crimes, not people.

Whitaker's appearance Friday followed serious doubt Thursday that he would show up to testify. He finally pledged to appear if the House dropped its threat of a subpoena. Nadler had acquired the subpoena as a last-resort measure.

Nadler told CNN Thursday Democrats will not be intimidated by Trump.

"There are a whole list of questions we don't know the answers to about," he said. "We can't allow the administration to stonewall us."

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Trump has repeatedly called the Justice Department investigation a "witch hunt" and this week slammed Democrats for starting a new inquiry into the Russia case -- something he advised them against in his State of the Union address Tuesday night. Thursday, he classified the efforts as "presidential harassment" and said Republicans never treated former President Barack Obama that way.

Whitaker was Sessions' chief of staff until the attorney general resigned. One of the main points of contention between Trump and Sessions was the attorney general's decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation and assign special counsel.

Whitaker's appointment was controversial from the beginning because he was not confirmed by the Senate. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a case challenging Whitaker's legitimacy.

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