Whitaker won't testify to House Intel panel unless he's promised no subpoenas

Blanche Robertson
February 8, 2019

A spat over a subpoena is threatening to upend House Democrats' first and perhaps only opportunity to publicly question acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker while he's in office.

Whitaker is slated to testify before the panel on Friday about his involvement in the Mueller probe, and whether he made any plans to derail the investigation before he was named as acting attorney general.

Whitaker's appearance became questionable Thursday after the panel, led by Democratic Rep. Jerrold Nadler of NY, approved a tentative subpoena to ensure that Whitaker would appear and answer questions. Nadler said that as late as last week the committee had received reports that some at the department were counseling Whitaker not to appear.

Democrats approved the subpoena over the objection of Republicans, who accused Nadler of authorizing a pre-emptive subpoena as "political theater" with questions created to embarrass the acting attorney general.

The vote doesn't issue a subpoena to Whitaker but allows House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler to do so if Whitaker is uncooperative. He noted that previous Trump administration officials, including former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, declined to answer questions about conversations with the White House during testimony, saying the president might want to claim executive privilege on those conversations in the future.

Several Republicans on the committee pushed for former Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican, to subpoena Rosenstein in the last Congress, though he ultimately did not appear.

Whitaker issued a statement Thursday saying he had agreed to testify "in good faith" and found the threat of subpoena would turn the hearing into "a public spectacle".

"The subpoena will only be issued if he refuses to answer questions on a speculative basis of privilege", Nadler said.

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Whitaker had been set to testify Friday before the House Judiciary Committee, where he was expected to face pointed questions about his oversight of the special counsel's investigations into Russian election interference.

But he would not testify about communications with Mr. Trump. "Thirdly and importantly, what I don't think your viewers know, is that when Matt says "I can't answer that question because it's privileged" or 'I can't answer that question because it's an ongoing investigation, ' if you're under subpoena, it makes it much easier for the committee to compel you to answer".

Republicans said the vote was unnecessary because Whitaker has agreed to appear voluntarily.

Democrats are calling Whitaker to testify even though his time leading the Justice Department is soon ending, with the Senate expected this month to confirm Trump's nominee for attorney general, William Barr.

Republicans on the committee also strongly opposed Nadler's resolution to approve a subpoena if necessary. "The majority had enough faith in its witnesses last week not to subpoena them", said Ranking Member Doug Collins, (R-Ga.).

Republicans proposed an amendment, offered by Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona, to add Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein - a familiar target of the GOP given his past oversight of the Mueller probe - to Nadler's subpoena, which was rejected by Democrats.

In a separate letter sent to Nadler, Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd demanded a response on the subpoena question.

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