Acting U.S. attorney general says has not discussed Russia probe with Trump


WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Acting U.S. Attorney General Matthew Whitaker said on Friday he had not talked to President Donald Trump about the special counsel’s probe into alleged Russian election meddling, in a combative congressional hearing.

“I have not talked to the president of the United States about the special counsel’s investigation,” Whitaker told House of Representatives Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat.

“We have followed the special counsel regulations to a T,” said Whitaker, a Trump appointee. “There has been no event…that has required me to take any action, and I have not interfered in any way” with Mueller’s probe.

Democrats, who took control of the House last month and are increasing oversight of the Trump administration, want to shine a light on any actions Whitaker took regarding Mueller’s probe, including possible communications with the White House and the firing of Jeff Sessions as attorney general in November.

Trump’s decision to name Whitaker acting attorney general sparked controversy given that he now directly oversees Mueller’s probe, which he has publicly criticized in the past.

Russia has denied any meddling in the 2016 presidential election. Trump has repeatedly said there was no collusion between his campaign and Russia and has called Mueller’s investigation a witch hunt.

Whitaker on Friday repeatedly declined to answer questions about when and how many time he was briefed on Mueller’s probe, prompting Nadler to threaten to call him back for a deposition.

The hearing room erupted in gasps when Whitaker pushed back strongly against a question from Nadler about whether he had ever been asked to approve any action requested by Mueller. “Mr. Chairman, I see that your five minutes is up,” Whitaker said curtly.

Acting U.S. Attorney General Matthew Whitaker is sworn in prior to testifying before a House Judiciary Committee hearing on oversight of the Justice Department on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., February 8, 2019. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Earlier, Whitaker said he would invoke executive privilege in declining to discuss “the contents of deliberations or conversations with the president.”

In a political drama that enfolded on Thursday, Whitaker had threatened not to appear at the hearing after Democrats threatened to use a subpoena to compel him to answer certain questions. Later, Nadler agreed to drop the threat, paving the way for Whitaker’s appearance before the panel.

‘BRING YOUR POPCORN’

Congressman Doug Collins, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, blasted Democrats for their handling of the subpoena drama.

He accused them of character assassination, said the subpoena battle was a “complete waste of time,” and suggested the hearing was political theater.

“Bring your popcorn,” he said.

Justice Department ethics officials recommended Whitaker recuse himself from overseeing the Russia investigation, a step he chose not to take.

“Mr. Whitaker, like everyone else at the Department of Justice, you are entitled to your political opinions,” Nadler said at the start of Friday’s hearing.

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“But when career officials at the department recommended that you take steps to mitigate your apparent conflicts of interest, Mr. Whitaker — when they told you that your public criticism of the special counsel was bad for the department and bad for the administration of justice, you ignored them.”

Whitaker’s appointment also raised legal questions, prompted court challenges, and renewed scrutiny of his past business practices.

Trump has since nominated William Barr as attorney general. Barr is expected to face a Senate confirmation vote next week.

Reporting by Andy Sullivan, Sarah N. Lynch and Susan Heavey; Editing by Paul Simao and Alistair Bell

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