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Acting AG Whitaker Testifies On Capitol Hill

Feb 8, 2019
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Acting U.S. Attorney General Matthew Whitaker says he has not spoken with President Trump about the special counsel investigation. But Whitaker also told the House Judiciary Committee this morning he won't speak about his conversations with the president, either. NPR's justice reporter Ryan Lucas is here to talk about Whitaker's testimony this morning. Hi there, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: All right. Let's just step back. Whitaker, actually, in his role as acting AG - he oversees the special counsel Robert Mueller, right?

LUCAS: That's right. He is technically the man overseeing it. He was advised by career ethics officials at the Justice Department that there was not an actual conflict of interest that would require him to recuse himself. But they did say that Whitaker's past comments about the Russia investigation before he joined the Justice Department could raise reasonable questions about his impartiality. That could raise an appearance of a conflict of interest. Whitaker ultimately decided not to step aside. It was a close call. But while Whitaker has oversight of the probe at the 30,000-foot level - he says he's been briefed on it - the Justice Department says that the investigation continues to be managed by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

GREENE: But his statements about the special counsel's office is what had Democrats worried and one reason they really wanted to bring him into committee.

LUCAS: Absolutely. There were questions about why he was picked to be the acting attorney general after being the chief of staff for the previous attorney general, Jeff Sessions. A lot of the public statements that Whitaker made before joining the Justice Department have caught the eyes of Democrats. Whitaker, for example, argued that Mueller's investigation was perhaps ranging too far afield. He said that examining the president's personal finances would be a red line, which is certainly something that President Trump himself has said. And Whitaker also suggested that the special counsel's resources could be squeezed to limit the investigation. Now today Whitaker defended his time atop the Justice Department. He says he has not interfered in the Russia investigation in any way. And he says nothing improper has happened with the Mueller probe under his watch.

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MATTHEW WHITAKER: During my time as leader of the Department of Justice, the department has complied with the special counsel regulations. And there has been no change in how the department has worked with the special counsel's office.

LUCAS: Now, Whitaker also said that the White House has not asked for nor has he provided any commitments about the special counsel's investigation or any other investigation. And he also made clear that he got the job because of his work with the department.

GREENE: You say any other investigation. It's not just the special counsel investigation. I mean, the Justice Department has investigations involving the president's businesses, his inaugural committee. Have those come up?

LUCAS: They have not come up. But you're right. There are a number of other investigations that, in some way, may tie back into the president. There's the Michael Cohen investigation out of the Southern District of New York. That's the president's former fixer and personal lawyer. And then investigations into the presidential inaugural committee - the inaugural committee received a subpoena this week from federal prosecutors in New York. That investigation appears to be in the early stages. But there are questions about the money that the committee raised, where it came from, whether there were any foreign donations, which would be illegal, and how the committee spent this huge amount of money, $107 million that it raised for the inauguration.

GREENE: Now, he's not going to be in the job very long. William Barr is probably going to be sworn in maybe as early as next week as the permanent attorney general. I mean, does that mean this is the only crack this committee has at Whitaker?

LUCAS: This is likely the only crack that this committee will have with Whitaker. That's part of the reason that Democrats were so eager to get him into the hearing today. Now, the Democratic chairman has proposed bringing him back behind closed doors. But, again, that's much harder to do if Whitaker is out of the department.

GREENE: Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for us at NPR. Ryan, thanks.

LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.