With the longest federal government shutdown in American history in the rearview mirror — for now — House Democrats are gearing up for their efforts at oversight of the Trump administration. One of their first fights got more intense this week when on Thursday, acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker threatened to skip a Friday Judiciary Committee hearing at which he’d been set to testify unless Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) promises not to subpoena him — although House Democrats could obviously still dig in and subpoena him anyway. Even holding him in contempt of Congress is an option.
In a letter to the committee, the Justice Department’s legislative affairs chief Stephen Boyd decried the looming specter of a subpoena for Whitaker as “an attempt to circumvent the constitutionally required accommodation process and thereby to transform the hearing into a public spectacle.”
On Thursday, the Judiciary Committee had voted (along party lines) to open up the option to subpoena Whitaker to Nadler. In the past, House investigators have handed down a subpoena even during testimony, utilizing the tactic to try and get answers out of former Trump adviser — and campaign chairman — Steve Bannon.
Similarly to the Bannon situation, Whitaker has indicated that he will resist a number of lines of questioning from the Judiciary Committee on the basis of “executive privilege.” In other words, Boyd’s angry letter might be an indication that the Justice Department knows Whitaker’s behavior will warrant a subpoena. Officials have reportedly been practicing answering Congressional questions with Whitaker for weeks.
Nadler and the Judiciary Committee have outlined their areas of interest as covering a broad range of Whitaker’s private communications with the president, including on the subject of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. Because Whitaker has previously sought to undercut the legitimacy of the Mueller probe and he was handpicked by the president to serve after he pushed out Attorney General Jeff Sessions, there’s been concern Whitaker could spell trouble for the Mueller investigation.
Trump has specifically complained about Sessions’ refusal to direct the Russia investigation how he wanted, claiming he would never have even nominated the former U.S. Senator if he knew he wouldn’t man the puppet strings according to Trump’s wishes.
Although Whitaker indicated he’ll stay away from at least some answers, he asserted via Boyd’s letter this week that there “has been no change in how the Department has worked with the Special Counsel’s office” and that at no time has the White House requested or Whitaker provided any “promises or commitments” concerning the investigation.
At a recent press conference, Whitaker suggested that Mueller’s probe would soon come to a close, but that seemed more speculative than certain, although there have been rumors to that effect in the media.
Mueller recently charged longtime Trump associate Roger Stone with an array of serious crimes including obstruction of justice, witness tampering, and lying to Congress, all of which covers a scheme he embarked upon to hide his true connections to Wikileaks and the stolen Democratic emails they peddled. Stone is the sixth former Trump associate to face charges from the special counsel’s office.
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