The Washington D.C. high drama offerings this winter included a one-day theatrical performance starring Matthew Whitaker and congressional players.
On Friday, the nation’s acting attorney general was featured in a one-day performance while players in the House Judiciary Committee asked fast-paced questions — racing through their five minutes of allotted time.
The hearing touched on a series of topics, mostly relating to Whitaker’s about-to-close role as the acting AG.
Whitaker told the congressional players that he had “not interfered in any way with the special counsel’s investigation” into Russia’s 2016 election-manipulation operation since President Trump installed him at the top of the Justice Department.
The drama involved contentious questions as the congressional interviewers sped through their lists before the committee chairman, Representative Jerrold Nadler, announced that their five-minute time limits had expired.
Whitaker testified that he had provided no inside information about Russia’s interference in the U.S. election process to the Southern District of New York, president Trump or his lawyers and White House aides.
“I do not believe that I have briefed third-party individuals outside of the Department of Justice. I have received the briefings myself and I’m usually the endpoint of that information,” Whitaker said
After Democrats won a House majority in the November election, they made it an early priority to get Whitaker in front of the oversight committee before his expected replacement by William P. Barr, whom the Senate is likely to confirm this week as attorney general.
The hearing included a full draft of hastily asked questions.
Whitaker denied that the Justice Department had recently decided to issue a legal opinion restricting online gambling — reversing an interpretation the department had issued in 2011 — as a gift to casino owners like Sheldon G. Adelson, the casino magnate and a major Republican donor.
The acting attorney general said he had no involvement in the opinion, but rejected as “absolutely wrong” the premise that the process was corrupt.
The hearing focused mainly on the Russian investigation. It quickly became contentious as Nadler used his opening statement to blast Whitaker for refusing to recuse himself from overseeing the Russia investigation despite the recommendation of Justice Department ethics officials that he step aside because of his past public comments criticizing it.
Whitaker pointedly declined at multiple points, though, to defend Mueller and his investigation from accusations by Trump and others that Mueller was conducting a “witch hunt.”
One exchange brought laughter from the congressional players. Nadler asked Whitaker if he had ever been asked to approve any request for action to be taken by Mueller and Whitaker replied, “Mr. Chairman, I see that your five minutes are up.”
Nadler looked up in apparent disbelief at the breach of decorum, but then grinned and let it slide, noting that he did not enforce the five-minute rule during Whitaker’s opening statement. Nadler then directed Whitaker to “answer the question, please.” So the high drama occasionally was elevated to a comedy.
“Mr. Attorney General, we are not joking here, Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, said during one exchange. “And your humor is not acceptable.”
But at the end of the hearing, Nadler called Whitaker’s testimony on the topic of communications with the White House before joining the Justice Department inconsistent at best.
Nadler reiterated his intention to call Whitaker back for another interview, “under subpoena if necessary,” to answer additional questions he had declined to address on Friday.
Then the show closed the curtain, without a curtain call.