By Andy Sullivan, Sarah N. Lynch and Susan Heavey
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Acting U.S. Attorney General Matthew Whitaker snapped back on Friday at newly emboldened Democrats in Congress who are pushing for information on the special counsel’s Russia probe as they try to put President Donald Trump‘s administration under greater scrutiny.
Whitaker, a Trump appointee, said he had not “interfered in any way” with Special Counsel Robert Mueller‘s investigation into whether Moscow tried to tip the 2016 presidential election in Trump‘s favor or colluded with the Trump campaign.
In a combative hearing in the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee, Whitaker said he had not talked to Trump about the probe. Democrats, who took over the panel after winning the House at last year’s midterm elections, accused him of being evasive.
The hearing room erupted in gasps when Whitaker pushed back strongly against a question from Chairman Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat, 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, in a bold challenge to the head of the committee. “I am here voluntarily. We have agreed to five minute rounds,” he added.
“Answer the question please,” Nadler replied.
Trump‘s decision to appoint Whitaker sparked controversy given that the acting attorney general directly oversees Mueller’s probe, which Whitaker has publicly criticized in the past before joining the Justice Department in 2017.
Whitaker said on Friday he would invoke executive privilege in declining to discuss “the contents of deliberations or conversations with the president.”
Democrats repeatedly accused Whitaker of running out the clock by giving them evasive or repetitive answers in the hearing.
In one case, he refused to answer Democratic congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee‘s questions with a yes or no, and made a flippant remark about whether the time she had lost on the clock had been restored before he answered her questions.
“Mr. Attorney General, we are not joking here and your humor is not acceptable,” she said.
But Whitaker did say he had not discussed the Russia probe with Trump, either before he worked at the Justice Department or after he became acting attorney general.
“I have not talked to the president of the United States about the special counsel’s investigation,” Whitaker said.
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.
Political drama erupted on Thursday when Democrats threatened to serve Whitaker a subpoena if he failed to answer certain questions at the hearing.
Nadler later agreed to drop the threat, after Whitaker said he would back out from testifying if the subpoena was served.
During the hearing on Friday, Nadler threatened to force Whitaker to go back in front of the committee for a deposition.
Congressman Doug Collins, the top Republican on the committee, blasted Democrats for their handling of the subpoena drama.
He accused them of character assassination and suggested the hearing was political theater. “Bring your popcorn,” he said.
Justice Department ethics officials have 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.
“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 defended his decision on Friday.
“I had no conflict of interest,” he insisted.
“Ultimately, the decision whether or not to recuse was my decision.”
Whitaker told lawmakers he has never tried to withhold funding from Mueller‘s office and never spoke with members of Trump‘s inner circle about his views on the probe as a private citizen, before he joined the Justice Department in 2017.
It was likely the first and last time that Whitaker will testify as acting attorney general. Trump‘s nominee for attorney general, William 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)