Political News

6 things we learned (or re-learned) about Mueller probe from Matthew Whitaker's testimony

Posted February 8, 2019 3:55 p.m. EST

— Just days before he will leave the job, Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker spent hours Friday answering -- and not answering -- a flurry of questions from members of the House Judiciary Committee. The questions were all over the map, but primarily focused on Whitaker's role overseeing the special counsel probe into Russian interference being led by Robert Mueller.

The hearing was hugely confrontational, as Democrat after Democrat grilled Whitaker over his ascension to acting attorney general, his conversations about the ongoing investigation and his past comments as a private citizen about Mueller and the probe.

I watched the hearing. I waded through the partisan sniping. And I took notes on what we learned (or re-learned) from what Whitaker said (and didn't). (Nota bene: Whitaker was under oath.) My observations are in the chronological order that Whitaker said them.

1. Whitaker has been fully briefed on the Mueller probe

At press conference last month on an unrelated matter, Whitaker said he had been "fully briefed" on the Mueller probe. Whitaker confirmed that fact under oath on Friday, although he would not offer any details of when he was briefed or how many times he had been briefed.

2. Whitaker has not spoken to Trump about the Mueller probe

While Whitaker repeatedly cited his desire to keep conversations between himself and the President private, he did allow, under repeated questioning, that he had never talked to Trump about the special counsel investigation. "I have not talked to the President of the United States about the special counsel investigation," he said.

3. There were no promises made or asked for when Whitaker was named

Trump's choice of Whitaker to be the acting attorney general raised eyebrows due to the fact that it broke with accepted norms and chain of command. It also put a non-Senate-confirmed staffer (Whitaker) above a Senate-confirmed staffer (Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein).

Democrats repeatedly sought answers for how Whitaker had ascended to his current post. "We're all trying to figure out, who are you?" said New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D). "Where did you come from? And how the heck did you become the head of the Department of Justice?"

One thing Whitaker did provide clarity on was that Trump had not asked him for anything nor had he promised the President anything in exchange for his promotion.

4. Whitaker is thankful for your question and understands your concerns

Over and over (and over) again, Whitaker thanked members of Congress for their questions -- many of which were decidedly pointed. He also began his answers to a bevy of questions with the phrase, "I understand this is an issue that concerns you."

Gracious? Eh ... more like a tried-and-true stalling tactic.

5. Whitaker acknowledged the top career official at DOJ advised him to recuse himself

Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Georgia) pushed hard on Whitaker to name the names of people who he talked to when determining whether past comments critical of the Mueller probe -- made as a private citizen -- meant he should recuse himself from oversight over the Mueller probe. One of the people Whitaker said he talked to was Brad Weinsheimer, the senior career office attorney at the Justice Department.

"He said that out of an abundance of caution that if asked he would recommend a certain course," Whitaker said of Weinsheimer. "He also said the decision was mine to make." (That statement is consistent with this reporting from the Washington Post in late 2018.)

6. Whitaker said he never interfered in any way with the Mueller probe or denied it funding

While we know Whitaker hadn't moved to end the Mueller probe -- we would have known about that! -- there were questions as to whether he had slowed it or strangled funding for it as a way of withering the investigation on the vine.

Whitaker offered a complete and broad denial he had intervened in absolutely any way in the Mueller probe. "I have not denied any funds to the special counsel's investigation," he said at one point.