President Trump has denied a New York Times report that he asked then-Acting Attorney General Matthew G. Whitaker to appoint an ally in the Southern District of New York to run the investigation of Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal lawyer. U.S. attorney Geoffrey S. Berman had recused himself from the case because of a conflict of interest.
But Whitaker’s carefully worded denials suggest there is something to the explosive story.
At a congressional hearing earlier this month, Whitaker told lawmakers, “At no time has the White House asked for, nor have I provided, any promises or commitments concerning the special counsel’s investigation or any other investigation.”
The New York Times anecdote has not been independently corroborated by The Washington Post. But if it’s true, Democrats will surely argue that Whitaker lied under oath.
In fact, though, Whitaker seems to have carefully crafted a sentence that would never endanger Whitaker. Whitaker doesn’t deny that Trump tried to get involved; he just says the White House never “asked for . . . any promises or commitment.” As long as Trump didn’t ask him to promise to get Berman back in, Whitaker is probably in the clear.
It was also part of Whitaker’s opening statement, meaning it was surely vetted for technical truthfulness. Whitaker gave the impression that he was denying that the White House had ever tried to influence an investigation. But that’s not really what he said.
And that’s kind of the point. If you look at Whitaker’s testimony closely, you’ll see someone who carefully avoided saying Trump hadn’t tried to get involved in any investigations. When lawmakers pressed him to expand upon the quote above, he steadfastly refused by citing the confidentiality of his communications with Trump. He did this even though it wouldn’t really reveal anything he hadn’t already broached in his opening statement.
Here’s one exchange with Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.):
LIEU: Did you communicate to Donald Trump or the -- or any senior White House advisers about investigations from the Southern District of New York concerning the Trump Organization, the Trump inaugural committee, Michael Cohen or the investigations that relate to Trump entities or potentially the President?
WHITAKER: Congressman, I mentioned that -- I said ‘other investigations’ in my opening statement. I really don’t have anything further to add to that answer.
LIEU: And when you said other investigations, do you mean you communicated to the president about these investigations?
WHITAKER: No, no I didn't - that's - that's ...
LIEU: ... that you - that you did not?
WHITAKER: ... that's not what I said in my opening statement. I'd just - I'll refer you back to my opening statement, I was very clear about that.
LIEU: Did you communicate to the president or any senior White House advisers about investigations from the Southern District of New York related to Trump entities or ...
WHITAKER: Again, I was very explicit in my opening statement as to -- that not only about my communications regarding the special counsels office and I said other investigations and the Southern district of New York would be included in other investigations.
LIEU: OK. Thank you. So we’re going to move to another subject.
This is a bit of a mess. Whitaker suggests that his opening statement dealt with Lieu’s question of whether he talked to anyone at the White House about the SDNY investigation, when in fact it didn’t (for reasons mentioned above). But Whitaker won’t explicitly deny any contacts. The Times story suggests there was a reason for that.
Later, Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.) tried to pick up on Lieu’s line of questioning and met another brick wall:
DEMINGS: Mr. Lieu asked you if you ever -- prove it. Mr. Lieu asked you if you ever communicated with President Trump about investigations in the Southern District of New York. Instead of answering, you referred him back to your statement -- referred him back to what was written for you.
But all you said is that you didn’t many -- or statement that you didn’t make any promises or commitments to President Trump. I want to know whether you talked to President Trump at all about the Southern District of New York’s case involving Michael Cohen.
WHITAKER: Congresswoman, as I’ve mentioned several times today, I am not going to discuss my private conversations with the president of the United States.
DEMINGS: So yes or no, did you ...
WHITAKER: No matter what the question is ...
DEMINGS: Yes or no, did you discuss with President Trump anything about Michael Cohen?
WHITAKER: Congresswoman, as I have expressed several times today, I am not ...
DEMINGS: Did you ever have any conversations with the president about firing or reassigning any personnel, U.S. attorneys, or others who work the Southern District of New York ...
WHITAKER: Congresswoman ...
DEMINGS: ... with the president or anybody -- anybody at all. Did you ever have any conversations with anybody about reassigning or firing any personnel including U.S. attorneys with the Southern District of New York?
WHITAKER: Congresswoman, I sit on top of the Department of Justice, as you mentioned.
DEMINGS: Did you ever have any conversations about anybody who works with the district of Virginia firing or reassigning with anybody. Not just the president, anybody at all.
WHITAKER: Congresswoman, I am not going to talk ...
Demings, to her credit, noted how carefully parsed Whitaker’s opening statement was and the difference between Whitaker denying request for “any promises or commitments” and denying any contacts. Yet Whitaker still doesn’t bite.
But why would Whitaker be able to deny something as specific as “any promises or commitments” requested by the White House, but not be able to say whether they talked about it?
The answer seems to be that they did talk about it, which Whitaker carefully avoided saying in one final exchange I’ll paste here. In this one, Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-R.I.) brings up a CNN report saying Trump “lashed out” at Whitaker over Cohen’s guilty plea:
CICILLINE: Mr. Whitaker. Did the President lash out at you after Michael Cohen’s guilty plea for lying to Congress about a Trump organization project to build a tower in Moscow?
WHITAKER: The President specifically tweeted that he had not lashed out.
CICILLINE: Did -- did -- I’m asking you, Mr. Whitaker. Did the President lash out at you? Not asking what he tweeted. I don’t have a lot of confidence in the veracity of his tweets. I’m asking you under oath.
WHITAKER: Congressman, that is based on an unsubstantiated ...
CICILLINE: Sir, answer the question yes or no, did the President lash out to you about Mr. Cohen's guilty plea?
WHITAKER: No, he did not.
CICILLINE: And did anyone from the White House or anyone on the President's behalf lash out at you?
CICILLINE: Mr. Whitaker, did the President lash out to you on or about December 8th, 2018, to discuss a case before the Southern District of New York where he was identified as Individual-1?
WHITAKER: No, Congressman.
CICILLINE: Did anyone on the President's behalf either out - inside the White House or outside the White House contact you to lash out or to express dissatisfaction?
WHITAKER: Did they contact me to lash out?
CICILLINE: Yes, did they reach out to you in some way to express dissatisfaction?
The transcript doesn’t do this justice, so make sure you watch the video:
Whitaker clearly didn’t want to get into the substance of the question, so he pointed to Trump’s own denial rather than issuing his own — and then eventually relented. And again, he’s denying something very specific with regard to contacts with Trump about SDNY, but he isn’t denying contacts more generally.
If any comment could get Whitaker in trouble, it could be this one. At the very end of the exchange, he denies not just that Trump “lashed out” — which is a very subjective phrase — but also that anyone from the White House reached out to express “dissatisfaction.” It’s possible that Trump could have talked about getting Berman un-recused from the Cohen investigation without expressing dissatisfaction about the whole thing, but one would wonder why else Trump would make the request.
And more than anything, it suggests that Whitaker tried very hard to parse his way through Trump’s actions with regard to the SDNY investigation. Now we might know why: He and Trump did reportedly talk about it, and Trump’s requests may not have been on the up and up.