‘I have not interfered in any way,’ acting U.S. AG Whitaker says of Mueller investigation – National


WASHINGTON — Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker insisted on Friday that he had “not interfered” in the special counsel’s Russia investigation as he faced a contentious and partisan congressional hearing in his waning days on the job.

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“We have followed the special counsel’s regulations to a T,” Whitaker told the House Judiciary Committee. “There has been no event, no decision, that has required me to take any action, and I have not interfered in any way with the special counsel’s investigation.”

State of the Union 2019: Trump says ‘ridiculous’ probes hurt the U.S. economy

He also said he had never discussed with the White House special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into potential co-ordination between Russia and Donald Trump’s campaign.

The hearing was the first, and likely only, chance for newly empowered Democrats in the majority to grill an attorney general they perceive as a Trump loyalist and whose appointment they suspect was aimed at suppressing investigations of the Republican president. Republicans made clear they viewed the hearing as pointless political grandstanding especially since Whitaker may have less than a week left as the country’s chief law enforcement officer.

WATCH: Whitaker was aware of Roger Stone arrest, unsure how CNN ‘tipped-off’

“I’m thinking maybe we just set up a popcorn machine in the back,” said Rep. Doug Collins, the committee’s top Republican.

Collins, of Georgia, called it a “dog and pony” show and criticized Democrats for disclosing derogatory information about Whitaker’s business dealings hours before the hearing.

Self-proclaimed hackers in Russia stole evidence in Mueller probe: court filing

Whitaker vented frustration early on as he repeatedly insisted that he would not discuss his conversations with Trump and tried to shift attention to the conventional work of the Justice Department.

“Mr. Chairman, I see that your five minutes are up,” Whitaker said to the committee’s Democratic leader, Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York.

WATCH: Whitaker says he has not spoken about Mueller probe to Trump, WH officials

But Nadler, who a day earlier had threatened to subpoena Whitaker to ensure his appearance, left no doubt about his party’s focus.

“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. The question that this Committee must now ask is: Why?”

READ MORE: Acting attorney general says Mueller’s Russia investigation ‘close to being completed’

Whitaker laid the groundwork for a likely tussle with Democrats by saying in his opening statement that while he would address their questions, he would not reveal details of his communications with Trump.

“I trust that the members of this committee will respect the confidentiality that is necessary to the proper functioning of the presidency — just as we respect the confidentiality necessary to the legislative branch,” Whitaker said.

WATCH: Whitaker will not reveal details of conversations with Trump during judiciary hearing

He told lawmakers that there has been no change since his arrival in the job in the “overall management” of Mueller’s investigation. He said that he has run the Justice Department to the best of his ability, with “fidelity to the law and to the Constitution” and had never given any promises.

Whitaker is likely in his final days as the country’s chief law enforcement officer because the Senate plans to vote soon on confirming William Barr, Trump’s pick for attorney general.

Whitaker’s highly anticipated testimony Friday had been in limbo after the Democratic-led committee approved a tentative subpoena to ensure that he appeared and answered questions. Whitaker responded by saying that he would not come unless the committee dropped its subpoena threat, which he called an act of “political theatre.”

WATCH: ‘I’ve not been influenced by the White House’, Whitaker says

The stalemate ended Thursday evening after the committee chairman, Nadler, said the committee would not issue a subpoena if Whitaker appeared voluntarily.

Democrats who perceive Whitaker as a Trump loyalist were expected to ask him whether he has made any commitments to the president about Mueller’s Russia investigation and whether he has shared with Trump any inside information. Also expected to come up was Whitaker’s comment last week that he believed the investigation into potential ties between Russia and the Trump campaign was nearly done.

Democrats said they would inquire about Whitaker’s past business dealings, too. Nadler and three other House committee chairmen released documents that they said show Whitaker failed to return thousands of dollars that were supposed to be distributed to victims of a company’s alleged fraud.

READ MORE: Roger Stone doesn’t rule out co-operating with Russia investigation

Whitaker has come under scrutiny for his involvement with the invention promotion company, which was accused of misleading consumers and has been under investigation by the FBI.

Whitaker had been chief of staff to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was forced from the Cabinet last November as Trump seethed over Sessions’ decision to step aside from overseeing the Russia investigation. Whitaker was an outspoken critic of the investigation before arriving at the Justice Department in 2017.

Trump insists there was “no collusion” between his campaign and Russia.


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Mueller team has ‘gone absolutely nuts,’ Trump says about Russia inquiry


WASHINGTON — Fresh off three days of private meetings with his personal lawyers, President Donald Trump renewed his attacks on Thursday on the special counsel investigation, calling it “A TOTAL WITCH HUNT LIKE NO OTHER IN AMERICAN HISTORY!”

The barrage, launched on Twitter, ended a period of relative quiet by the president about the investigation, which has ensnared some of his former aides.

President Donald Trump with Chief Paul Cell, of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, left, during an announcement of his support for a criminal justice reform bill, called the First Step Act, at the White House in Washington, on Nov. 14. Trump blasted the special counsel team, calling their investigation a ‘TOTAL WITCH HUNT LIKE NO OTHER IN AMERICAN HISTORY!’
President Donald Trump with Chief Paul Cell, of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, left, during an announcement of his support for a criminal justice reform bill, called the First Step Act, at the White House in Washington, on Nov. 14. Trump blasted the special counsel team, calling their investigation a ‘TOTAL WITCH HUNT LIKE NO OTHER IN AMERICAN HISTORY!’  (AL DRAGO / New York Times)

Acting U.S. Attorney General Matt Whitaker will consult with ethics officials over recusal

The text of Trump’s tweets: “The inner workings of the Mueller investigation are a total mess. They have found no collusion and have gone absolutely nuts. They are screaming and shouting at people, horribly threatening them to come up with the answers they want. They are a disgrace to our Nation and don’t care how many lives the ruin. These are Angry People, including the highly conflicted Bob Mueller, who worked for Obama for 8 years. They won’t even look at all of the bad acts and crimes on the other side. A TOTAL WITCH HUNT LIKE NO OTHER IN AMERICAN HISTORY!”

In recent days, Trump had been relatively quiet about the investigation. He returned Sunday from a trip to Paris to face criticism for his decision to skip a solemn visit to an American cemetery in France, part of events to mark 100 years since the end of World War I.

When he got back to Washington, Trump stepped into private sessions with his personal lawyers, people close to the legal team said. They were drafting answers to questions from the special counsel, Robert Mueller, whose team is investigating possible links between Trump associates and Russia’s election interference and whether Trump has obstructed the inquiry itself.

But it was unclear what may have motivated Trump’s messages on Thursday morning.

Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, was spotted by an ABC News crew on Monday en route to see Mueller’s team. Cohen has pleaded guilty to a string of crimes, and said under oath that his client ordered him to make hush payments to an adult-film actress claiming in 2016 that she had had an affair with Trump.

The president’s legal team and aides have pleaded with him for months to avoid writing Twitter posts about Mueller. The president has long complained privately about what he believes to be Mueller’s conflicts of interest, despite the Justice Department’s review and conclusion last year that Mueller had none.

Mueller has sought to ask the president about any possible coordination with Russia during the campaign and whether he intended to obstruct the investigation.


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Trump ousts Attorney General Jeff Sessions, endangering Mueller investigation


WASHINGTON – U.S. President Donald Trump has ousted Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a move that makes it easier for him to possibly fire the special counsel investigating his campaign’s relationship with Russia.

Sessions submitted his resignation on Wednesday, the day after the midterm elections in which Trump’s party lost the House of Representatives. He told Trump he was resigning “at your request,” making clear he was effectively fired.

He will be replaced, at least temporarily, by his chief of staff, Republican lawyer Matthew Whitaker — a former Republican political candidate who has publicly called for the special counsel probe to be limited.

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Whitaker wrote an article for CNN last year in which he argued that special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation was on the verge of going too far, by delving into Trump’s finances, and that Mueller should be ordered to curtail his work. And he mused on television about slashing Mueller’s budget to a level “so low that his investigation grinds to almost a halt.”

Trump had been furious with Sessions for recusing himself from the Russia investigation last March, a move that eventually led to the appointment of Mueller. Trump had blasted Sessions, the nation’s top law enforcement officer, in an unprecedented months-long series of angry tweets, public statements and private rants.

Sessions, a right-wing former Alabama senator and federal prosecutor, was the first sitting member of the Senate to endorse Trump. Formerly on the political fringe, he used his job as head of the Department of Justice to turn their shared hard-line views on immigration and criminal justice into policy.

He was widely seen as one of Trump’s most effective appointees. But Trump was fixated on the recusal decision, which he blamed for the Mueller investigation he calls a “witch hunt.”

“I have never seen anything so Rigged in my life. Our A.G. is scared stiff and Missing in Action,” Trump wrote on Twitter in August of the investigation, one of numerous public complaints over the last year.

Because Sessions had recused himself, authority over the Mueller investigation had fallen to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Until now, Rosenstein would have had to be the one to execute the firing of Mueller. But Rosenstein had expressed hostility to the idea.

Now, Trump can theoretically have Whitaker do the firing for him — though a federal regulation says the attorney general needs a good cause: “misconduct, dereliction of duty, incapacity, conflict of interest,” or “other good cause, including violation of departmental policies.”

Firing Mueller would likely cause the biggest firestorm of Trump’s presidency, producing a democratic crisis that would increase the chances that Trump could eventually be impeached. Trump has fumed about Mueller’s investigation but has not publicly said he wants to fire him.

At a press conference on Wednesday, he said that he did not want to fire Mueller but that he thought he had the power to do so any time he wants.

Democrats will take control of House committees in January thanks to their victory in the midterms, which will give them new powers to conduct oversight of the administration. The incoming chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Democratic Rep. Jerry Nadler, said on Twitter: “Americans must have answers immediately as to the reasoning behind @realDonaldTrump removing Jeff Sessions from @TheJusticeDept. Why is the President making this change and who has authority over Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation? We will be holding people accountable.”

Trump had made no secret of his desire to oust Sessions. In an Oval Office meeting in May 2017, he berated Sessions so forcefully over the recusal that Sessions wrote a letter of resignation, according to multiple news reports and former Trump chief of staff Reince Priebus.

Priebus claimed he convinced Trump not to accept the resignation — and that, the next month, he talked Trump a second time out of forcing Sessions into a resignation.

Trump settled for taunting Sessions on Twitter, showing no interest in the tradition of attorney general independence.

“Attorney General Jeff Sessions has taken a VERY weak position on Hillary Clinton crimes (where are E-mails & DNC server) & Intel leakers!” he wrote in July.

“Why aren’t Dem crimes under investigation? Ask Jeff Sessions!” he wrote in February.

In December, Trump compared Sessions unfavourably with Obama attorney general Eric Holder, suggesting to the New York Times that Sessions was insufficiently “loyal” to him. “I don’t want to get into loyalty, but I will tell you that, I will say this: Holder protected President Obama. Totally protected him,” Trump said.

Sessions had dismayed employees of the Justice Department and many others by saying almost nothing as Trump impugned the department’s integrity. He issued a rare statement in response to Trump’s “DISGRACEFUL” tweet in February.

“As long as I am the attorney general, I will continue to discharge my duties with integrity and honour, and this department will continue to do its work in a fair and impartial manner according to the law and Constitution,” he said.

Sessions was ousted eight months after he fulfilled Trump’s desire for him to fire FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe. Some observers thought his decision might convince Trump to spare his own job.

Sessions had made a major mark on American criminal justice. An opponent of a growing bipartisan push toward the liberalization of justice policy, he reversed a series of Obama-era efforts that sought to reform policing and prosecution practices.

Sessions told federal prosecutors to seek the harshest possible sentences for drug offences, reversing the Obama-era guidance that favoured more leniency for non-violent crimes. He had the Justice Department pull back from their Obama-era push to compel rights-violating local police forces to change their practices. He rescinded an Obama-era directive that sought to reduce the use of private prisons. And he rescinded another Obama-era directive that told the federal government to take a hands-off approach to states that have legalized marijuana.

Sessions has also been a key player in Trump’s immigration crackdown. He recommended and announced the cancellation of Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which protected from deportation young immigrants brought illegally to the U.S. as children. And he aggressively fought the “sanctuary cities” that do not fully co-operate with federal immigration authorities, in March announcing a federal lawsuit against California over state sanctuary policies — which he described as the work of “radical extremists.”

Daniel Dale is the Star’s Washington bureau chief. He covers U.S. politics and current affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @ddale8


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