WASHINGTON — Tick-tock.
Time seemed to be on acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker’s mind Friday when House Democrats trained their new oversight powers on his stewardship of the Trump administration’s Justice Department. That’s at least in part because his stewardship began in November with Jeff Sessions’ resignation and could end next week if the Senate confirms William Barr to the post.
“I have, as I mentioned, six days left and I plan to take full advantage of that, including, as I said, at this hearing,” Whitaker said as the proceedings entered a sixth hour.
Again and again, Whitaker tried to run out the clock on the Democrats’ efforts to grill him on whether he had interfered with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election meddling. (He said he had not.) Throughout, they scuffled over who was running the place.
“Mr. Chairman, I see that your five minutes is up,” Whitaker said to Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
The remark drew gasps in the hearing room, where committee chairmen hold immense power, including over who asks the questions and for how long.
The setup for Whitaker’s hearing was fairly typical: Committee members did the asking in five-minute increments. But Trump had set the tone in his State of the Union address when he decried “ridiculous partisan investigations” and seemed to some to tie the prospect of advancing legislation to whether Congress stopped investigating his administration.
Republicans made clear they regarded Friday’s hearing as a partisan exercise and a waste, given Whitaker’s status as a probable short-timer. Yet television networks spent the better part of the day airing it live, and some in the GOP worried privately that Whitaker seemed unprepared at times.
White House officials kept an eye on Whitaker’s performance and, while they appreciated his combative tone and aggressive defense of the administration, there was a sense from aides that his performance, at times, appeared halting. The president himself kept an eye on the proceedings as well before leaving the White House for his annual physical.
For Democrats, it was their first and likely only chance to grill an attorney general they perceive as a Trump loyalist and whose appointment they suspect was aimed at suppressing investigations of the Republican president.
Even before the hearing, it was a contest about who was in charge. Whitaker initially accepted the committee’s invitation to testify. Then Nadler threatened a subpoena if he refused. Whitaker refused to testify under threat of subpoena, but eventually backed down and agreed to appear before the panel Friday morning.
His answers to Democrats’ questions often focused on procedure and involved rhetorical wind-ups that ate up precious seconds.
“I’m controlling the time, let me move on,” snapped Rep. Hank Johnson Jr., D-Ga.
Nadler, a bulldog questioner under the Republican majority, piped up.
“It’s getting a little tiresome hearing you stall,” the New York Democrat told Whitaker. “We don’t need a speech.”
Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., tried to ask Whitaker who paid him the more than $1.2 million that he made heading a right-leaning nonprofit that doesn’t disclose its donors, according to the nonprofit’s tax filings.
Whitaker tried to interrupt, sparking a yelling match.
“Mr. Whitaker, you don’t run this committee,” said Raskin. Nadler confirmed that the congressman “controls the time.”
Later in the hearing, Whitaker seemed to get his feet under him. Pressed by Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., to tell Trump that Mueller is “honest,” Whitaker replied: “I am not here to be a puppet to repeat terms and words that you say.”
And he had more to say. When Nadler gaveled the hearing into a five-minute recess, Whitaker said into an open mic: “Five minutes for lunch?”
Associated Press writer Jonathan Lemire contributed to this report.
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