Russia probe chief grilled by lawmakers

Russia probe chief grilled by lawmakers

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Media caption“Mr Chairman, your five minutes are up” – Mr Whitaker’s testy exchange with Jerry Nadler

Acting US Attorney General Matthew Whitaker sparred with Democrats in a combative congressional hearing about his handling of the Russia inquiry.

Mr Whitaker, who oversees the probe, said he has not spoken to the president about the special counsel inquiry into alleged Trump campaign ties to Russia.

The top lawyer was appointed to the role by Donald Trump, but is expected to be replaced in the coming weeks.

He came under scrutiny for his public criticism of the investigation.

But Mr Whitaker told lawmakers he has not taken any action to interfere “in any way” with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe.

The hearing came after a dispute over whether he could be forced to disclose his conversations with the president.

What did Mr Whitaker say?

“I have not talked to the president of the United States about the special counsel investigation,” Mr Whitaker told the House Judiciary Committee.

Mr Whitaker, President Donald Trump’s pick to temporarily fill the top justice department role, added there had been “no change in the overall management” of the Mueller investigation.

“I have and will continue to manage this investigation in a manner that is consistent with the governing regulations,” he said in his opening remarks.

Mr Whitaker – who leads the US Department of Justice – has refused to offer any details regarding the investigation or his opinions of it, and only stated he has been briefed on the special counsel’s inquiry.

The only other staffer present during the Mueller briefing was Gregg Scott, US attorney from the eastern district of California, Mr Whitaker said.

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The committee’s Democratic leadership and Mr Whitaker’s team sparred on Thursday night over whether Mr Whitaker would even turn up for the hearing.

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Image caption Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler was the first to grill Mr Whitaker

The dispute emerged amid reports that Democrat and committee chairman Jerrold Nadler was planning to subpoena Mr Whitaker to testify about his interactions with President Donald Trump.

During the hearing, Mr Whitaker told the committee: “While I have specifically been saying that I’m not going to comment about my conversations with the president or his senior staff I have also been very clear that the president has not instructed me to do anything.”

Mr Whitaker is due to be replaced by William Barr after a Senate confirmation hearing in the coming weeks.

‘Dog and pony show’

Republicans, who until recently led the committee, complained on Friday that the hearing was a “dog and pony” show intended to discredit the president.

“I’m thinking maybe we just set up a popcorn machine in the back,” said Georgia Congressman Doug Collins, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee.

After opening statements Mr Collins called a vote on the motion to dismiss the hearing before questions had even begun, but it failed to pass.

Republican Representative Debbie Lesko of Arizona called the entire hearing “nothing but character assassination and harassment of our witness”.

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During a testy exchange with Democratic Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, Mr Whitaker at one point responded: “Mr Chairman, it appears that your five minutes is up,” triggering tense laughter in the chamber.

The Russia investigation into Trump campaign ties and possible obstruction of justice has been highly politicised since Mr Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey in May 2017.

Ethics officials at the justice department had called upon Mr Whitaker to recuse himself from the inquiry, as his predecessor Jeff Sessions had done, but he refused.

“You decided that your private interest in overseeing this particular investigation – and perhaps others from which you should have been recused – was more important than the integrity of the department,” Congressman Nadler told him as the hearing began.

In response to recusal questions from Democrats, Mr Whitaker has repeated: “It was my decision to make. I decided not to recuse.”

He said he had “consulted with a lot of people” about the options, but it was ultimately his choice.

Why is Mr Whitaker controversial?

Mr Trump fired his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, in November 2018.

After Mr Whitaker, the former chief of staff to Mr Sessions, was temporarily appointed to the position, it emerged he had written several op-eds that were sharply critical of Mr Mueller’s probe.

Mr Whitaker wrote for CNN in August 2017 that the investigation was “dangerously close to crossing” a “red line”.

He argued that questions about Mr Trump’s business interests were outside the special counsel’s scope, and said: “[Mr Mueller] is only authorised to investigate matters that involved any potential links to and co-ordination between two entities – the Trump campaign and the Russian government.”

Moscow has rejected US intelligence findings that the Kremlin meddled in the 2016 presidential campaign, and Mr Trump has repeatedly denied any campaign collusion with Russia.

A Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Russian intelligence has entered its second year, but Republican chairman Richard Burr said there is thus far nothing suggesting collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.

On Thursday, Mr Burr told CBS News: “If we write a report based upon the facts that we have, then we don’t have anything that would suggest there was collusion by the Trump campaign and Russia.”

Since Democrats took control of the House last month, they have launched several congressional inquiries into Mr Trump’s business dealings and his actions as president.

Democrats on the Ways and Means committee have taken the first step to obtain Mr Trump’s tax returns, which he refused to publicly release during the 2016 campaign.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff has also announced a sweeping investigation into Mr Trump’s actions as president, and has hired former White House staff members to aid in the probe.

Mr Trump has denounced the investigations as “presidential harassment”.

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