WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - Acting Attorney-General Matthew Whitaker told lawmakers "I have not interfered in any way" in Special Counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation, as lawmakers pressed him on conversations with President Donald Trump during a confrontational House hearing.
"We have followed the special counsel regulations to a T," he told the House Judiciary Committee on Friday (Feb 8).
Responding to Democratic questions about his past criticism of the investigation Trump routinely calls a "witch hunt," Whitaker said, "The special counsel understands the scope of his investigation and is complying with all the regulations."
Whitaker also said "I have not talked to the president of the United States about the special counsel's investigation" or discussed it "with senior White House officials."
He said he didn't "believe I have briefed third-party individuals" who might have relayed information to the president or his legal team but refused to elaborate.
Members of the panel, newly controlled by Democrats, had vowed to press Whitaker to disclose his discussions with Trump, who named him acting attorney general in November, and whether Whitaker is interfering with Mueller's investigation into Russian interference with the 2016 election and the possibility that people close to Trump colluded in the meddling.
"I have and will continue to manage this investigation in a manner that is consistent with the governing regulations," he told the House panel. He added that includes preventing any "outside interference" in investigations.
Opening the hearing, Judiciary chairman Jerrold Nadler sharply questioned what he called Whitaker's conflicts of interest after Trump fired attorney-general Jeff Sessions and named Whitaker as his replacement in an acting role.
"Why did President Trump choose to replace attorney-general Sessions with an outspoken critic of the special counsel, instead of with any number of qualified individuals who had already received Senate confirmation?" Nadler, a New York Democrat, asked Whitaker.
"Why did you ignore the career officials who went to extraordinary lengths to tell you that your involvement in the special counsel's work would undermine the credibility of the Department of Justice?"
Representative Doug Collins of Georgia, the committee's top Republican, called the hearing "pointless," saying Democrats simply "want to damage the president" through a "dog-and-pony show."
Under questioning by Nadler, Whitaker repeatedly refused to discuss the "ongoing investigation" by Mueller, including "the number of times I've been briefed and my involvement in the investigation."
Whitaker parried questions with a confidence bordering on swagger, refusing to answer yes-or-no questions.
At one point he violated protocol by telling Nadler, the committee chairman, that his allotted five minutes in a round of questioning had expired.
Whitaker acknowledged that a career ethics official in the Justice Department recommended that he recuse himself from overseeing the Russia probe.
"It was my decision to make," he said. "I decided not to recuse."
He distanced himself from comments he made as a private citizen that Mueller would be crossing a red line if he investigated Trump's business dealings.
When asked if it would be appropriate to probe the president's finances, Whitaker said, "We're going to follow the law and facts wherever they may lead, and we're going to do our jobs with fidelity."
In agreeing to appear before the Judiciary panel, Whitaker delayed a confrontation with Democrats over threats to subpoena him.
Thursday began when the House panel voted to authorise a subpoena of Whitaker. Whitaker baulked at the subpoena threat until Nadler took a more conciliatory stance.
On Thursday evening, Nadler resolved the daylong stalemate, telling Whitaker: "To the extent that you believe you are unable to fully respond to any specific question, we are prepared to handle your concerns on a case-by-case basis, both during and after tomorrow's hearing."
In a statement on Thursday night, Kerri Kupec, a Whitaker spokeswoman, said that the Acting Attorney-General had been assured that Nadler would not issue a subpoena "on or before Feb 8."
But Nadler said at Friday's hearing that "your failure to respond fully to our questions here today in no way limits the ability of this committee to get your answers in the long-run - even if you are a private citizen when we finally learn the truth."
Whitaker is expected to leave the Justice Department soon: The Senate is expected to vote next week on Trump's nomination of William Barr to serve as attorney-general.
The White House denounced Nadler's moves in advance of the hearing.
"The fact chairman Nadler would try to force the public disclosure of private conversations that he knows are protected by law proves he only wants to play politics," White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement on Thursday night.
"The chairman should focus on helping the American people, rather than wasting time playing pointless political games."
The dispute over Whitaker comes as Democrats leading other House panels also stepped up investigations of Trump and those around him, despite the president's warning in his State of the Union address on Tuesday that the nation's "economic miracle" could be stopped by "ridiculous partisan investigations."
He has also called it "presidential harassment."