Hearing for Acting AG Whitaker erupts in fireworks, as top Republican alleges ‘character assassination’

A House hearing for Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker erupted in fireworks Friday morning, as the top Republican on the judiciary committee accused Democratic Chairman Jerrold Nadler of “character assassination” against the temporary head of the Justice Department and called the hearing a pointless “dog and pony show.”

“This hearing is a character assassination on Acting Attorney General Whitaker, all pure political theater, to go after the president,” Ranking Member Doug Collins, R-Ga, said in his opening statement while urging the committee to adjourn.

A vote was then taken on whether to abruptly end the hearing. The measure did not pass, and the hearing began as scheduled, with Whitaker addressing the issue Democrats are most interested in: his oversight of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe.

In his opening statement, he said he never offered “promises or commitments” regarding the Mueller or any other investigation.

“There has been no change in the overall management of the special counsel investigation,” he said.

Whitaker also said he’s been briefed and the probe and, during a tense exchange with Nadler, said he has not discussed the status with President Trump or senior White House officials.

The hearing follows an intense back and forth between the Justice Department and the Judiciary Committee a day earlier.

The Judiciary Committee voted Thursday to give Nadler the authority to issue a subpoena if necessary, despite Whitaker having already agreed to appear before the panel voluntarily.

Nadler made clear early Thursday that he did not want to have to subpoena Whitaker, but said a “series of troubling events” suggested it would be better for him to be prepared with that authority, just in case he decided not to show up for the hearing.

But Whitaker then warned he would not show up unless lawmakers dropped the threat.

“Consistent with longstanding practice, I remain willing to appear to testify tomorrow, provided that the Chairman assures me that the Committee will not issue a subpoena today or tomorrow, and that the Committee will engage in good faith negotiations before taking such a step down the road,” Whitaker wrote to Nadler.

Hours later, Nadler responded that if Whitaker appeared before the panel “prepared to respond to questions from our members, then I assure you there will be no need for the committee to issue a subpoena on or before February 8.”

Whitaker accepted the assurances and testified Friday.

The hearing Friday comes as the Senate is close to confirming President Trump’s nominee for attorney general, William Barr. The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday voted, along party lines, to advance Barr’s nomination to the full Senate for confirmation.

The president fired his first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, the day after the 2018 midterm elections. Prior to Whitaker’s appointment as acting attorney general, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein oversaw the Russia investigation.

Nadler and other Democrats have criticized Whitaker for not recusing himself from the Mueller probe, as Sessions did due to his involvement with the Trump campaign in 2016, as Whitaker had made public comments criticizing the investigation.

The hearing is the committee’s first major oversight hearing looking at the Justice Department of this Congress. Whitaker told reporters last week that Mueller’s probe was “close to being completed,” the first official sign that the investigation may be nearing an end. His comments, though, were a departure for the Justice Department, which rarely comments on the status of investigations. Whitaker, though, said he had been “fully briefed” on the probe.

Fox News’ Jake Gibson and Gregg Re contributed to this report.