What was pitched as an oversight hearing with Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker on Friday quickly morphed into recriminations and barbed exchanges as Democrats pressed him for hours on his dealings with FBI Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation -- and Whitaker, in turn, angered committee lawmakers with his equally fiery comebacks.
The grilling amounted to a confirmation-style hearing for an acting official who may only have a few more days left on the job -- President Trump’s nominee to lead the Department of Justice, William Barr, is poised for Senate confirmation in the near future.
The questions from Democrats were aggressive, particularly on the question of Whitaker's oversight of the Mueller probe. But the acting AG repeatedly punched back.
“Can you say right now, ‘Mr. President, Bob Mueller is honest and not conflicted’?” asked Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif.
“Congressman, I’m not a puppet to repeat what you’re saying,” Whitaker shot back.
Democrats became increasingly agitated at what they saw as Whitaker’s efforts to run out the clock and control the hearing process. Whitaker stunned onlookers when he told House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., that his time slot had expired as Nadler asked Whitaker if he'd been “asked to approve any requests or action” for the special counsel.
“Mr. Chairman, I see that your five minutes is up, so…” Whitaker replied as gasps ricocheted around the hearing room. “I am here voluntarily. We have agreed to five-minute rounds.”
At one point, he tussled with Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, when she pressed on whether he’s appeared before for an oversight hearing. While the answer, eventually, was that he had not, the congresswoman objected when Whitaker would not answer with a requested “yes or no.” When she asked the chairman if her time had been restored, Whitaker replied with a degree of snark, “I don’t know whether your time’s been restored or not.”
“Mr. Attorney General, we’re not joking here, and your humor is not acceptable,” the congresswoman responded.
"I control this time, Mr. Whitaker,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., when Whitaker accused him of challenging his character.
“This is my time. Mr. Whitaker, you don't run this committee. You don't run the Congress of the United States, and you don't run the Judiciary Committee."
Republicans on Friday backed Whitaker, with ranking member Doug Collins, R-Ga., calling on the committee to adjourn -- although a vote to do so did not pass.
For his part, Collins called the daylong hearing a “dog and pony show.”
The hearing had been teased a day earlier when Nadler threatened to subpoena Whitaker, while the DOJ threatened to boycott the hearing.
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, as evidenced by his Friday appearance. But Nadler told reporters after the hearing that he was not happy with Whitaker’s answers and said he intends to bring him back for an additional deposition..
"He will come back, because we will use a subpoena if we have to," he said.
The hearing Friday comes as the Senate is close to confirming Trump’s nominee for attorney general. The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday voted, along party lines, to advance Barr’s nomination to the full Senate for confirmation.