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.
In a combative congressional hearing, Whitaker said he had not talked to Trump about the probe into whether Moscow tried to tip the 2016 presidential election, or “interfered in any way” in the investigation since taking his role in November.
Democrats, who took over the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee after last year’s midterm elections, accused Whitaker of being evasive in front of the panel and frequently clashed with him.
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.
“How the heck did you become the head of the Department of Justice?” Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries later railed at Whitaker.
Trump’s naming of Whitaker as acting attorney general caused controversy in part because it meant that the president’s appointee oversees the probe by Special Counsel Robert Mueller into whether Moscow meddled in the election and colluded with Trump’s campaign.
Whitaker had publicly criticized the investigation before joining the Justice Department in 2017 but said on Friday he had not discussed it with Trump.
“I have not talked to the president of the United States about the special counsel’s investigation,” Whitaker said.
Democrats repeatedly accused Whitaker of running out the clock by giving them evasive or rambling 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.
Whitaker testified he had never spoken with members of Trump’s inner circle about his views on the probe as a private citizen before he joined the Justice Department.
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, accused Democrats of staging political drama.
“Bring your popcorn,” he said. Collins repeatedly tried to cut Democrats off from asking questions unrelated to Whitaker’s current role at the department.
Justice Department ethics officials had recommended Whitaker recuse himself from overseeing the Russia investigation, a step he chose not to take.
“When career officials at the department recommended that you take steps to mitigate your apparent conflicts of interest, ... you ignored them,” Nadler said.
Whitaker defended his decision.
“I had no conflict of interest,” he insisted.
“Ultimately, the decision whether or not to recuse was my decision.”
When pressed on whether he trusted Mueller, he told lawmakers he has respect for the former FBI Director.
“I have been on the record about my respect for Bob Mueller,” Whitaker said. “I have no reason to believe he is not honest.”
Whitaker also denied media reports that Trump lashed out at him after learning his former lawyer and personal fixer Michael Cohen was pleading guilty for lying to Congress about a proposed Trump Tower in Moscow.
Friday 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