Matthew G. Whitaker was never confirmed to be attorney general, does not have the traditional pedigree and has several controversies dogging him as he testifies before the House Judiciary Committee. The question going in was: Would he be able to handle himself in such a high-profile setting — the first big oversight hearing House Democrats are running since winning the power to grill people like him?
The early answer is a decided no.
After just two rounds of questions, Whitaker was off to a very shaky start, looking uncertain and taking a couple highly questionable and awkward stands against how the hearing is being conducted.
In the first round of questions, Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) immediately began probing Whitaker’s actions with regard to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s Russia investigation, as expected. Whitaker was halting and often declined to immediately answer the question, but then would later answer it — despite saying he wasn’t going to talk about the investigation.
At one point, he challenged Nadler on the “basis” for Nadler’s belief that Whitaker had been briefed on Mueller’s probe in December. Nadler noted that the “basis” was not Whitaker’s concern, and that he just needed to answer the question.
At another point, Nadler asked him whether he had briefed Trump about the probe or anybody who might have then briefed Trump about it. Whitaker again balked but eventually answered the question: “I have not talked to the president of the United States about the special counsel’s investigation,” and “I do not believe I have briefed third-party officials outside of the Department of Justice.”
It took only five minutes of questioning for Whitaker to come a bit unglued. Nadler asked Whitaker whether he has been asked to approve any of Mueller’s actions. And Whitaker — remarkably — suggested that Nadler should stop asking questions.
“Mr. Chairman, I see that your five minutes is up,” Whitaker said.
It was a cry for mercy, and it came after just five minutes of questioning, with dozens of Democrats to come. There were gasps and laughter in the hearing room.
Then came the committee’s ranking member, Rep. Douglas A. Collins (R-Ga.), who from the start of the hearing had warned about the spectacle it would become thanks to Democrats. He ran interference for a little while, including asking Whitaker about the baseless claim that the Justice Department tipped off CNN to the Roger Stone raid. (Whitaker played along, calling it “deeply concerning to me as to how CNN found out about that.”)
When Collins was about done, Whitaker decided it was again time to take an awkward stand.
“This is not a confirmation hearing. I am probably going to be replaced by Bill Barr next week,” Whitaker began, in a reference to the nominee for attorney general. Whitaker added that he was “surprised” they weren’t talking about issues like crime, drugs and free speech on campus. “I look forward to talking about the substance at the Department of Justice.”
But he added to the members that “it’s your five minutes.” It was almost as if he was counting the minutes as they went by.
It’s true that this is not a confirmation hearing and is technically an oversight hearing — generally an opportunity for members to ask a Cabinet secretary about current business before their departments. But it’s also true that Whitaker has taken on a potentially hugely significant job without having to go through a confirmation hearing or answering questions about his background.
And Nadler was indeed asking about business before the Justice Department. Taking the stand Whitaker did would have made more sense if Nadler had begun talking about Whitaker’s controversial time on the board of a patent company that reached a $25 million settlement with people who say they were defrauded. It might have fit if Nadler had focused on Whitaker’s decision to ignore ethics advice and not recuse himself from oversight of the Russia probe.
But Nadler hadn’t even really gotten to those things, and Whitaker was already taking hugely unorthodox and awkward steps to try to wiggle his way out of any further grilling.
As the hearing progressed, Whitaker repeatedly tangled with the Democrats on the committee on process issues. When Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) inquired to Nadler about how much time she had left to answer questions, Whitaker answered instead that he didn’t know. Jackson Lee scolded Whitaker for making a joke. Whitaker repeatedly began his answers by thanking the members of Congress for their questions, apparently trying to stall (he did this five times in six questions at one point). And he at one point resisted naming the Justice Department officials with whom he had consulted on possible recusal, citing their possible “public exposure." But the ones he eventually named were appointed, Senate-confirmed officials.
It was an inauspicious start, to say the least.