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Acting Attorney General Says He Has Not Interfered With Mueller Investigation


Democrats were exercising their newly minted oversight powers on Capitol Hill today. The subject of inquiry - acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker and his oversight of the Russia probe.


MATTHEW WHITAKER: 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.


This hearing could turn out to be Whitaker's one and only. The acting attorney general could be out of a job next week. That's when the Senate is expected to confirm a successor, William Barr. NPR's Carrie Johnson has been following this story, and she is here to talk more about it. Hi, Carrie.


SHAPIRO: As we mentioned, this is really the first time the Democrats have wielded the gavel for oversight. This was the Judiciary Committee. What are the takeaways of the hearing?

JOHNSON: Well, most of this hearing focused on the ongoing probe into Russian election interference. Matt Whitaker says he's been fully briefed. He did not interfere with the investigation, and he says it will be done when the special counsel Bob Mueller says it's done. Whitaker also said he didn't talk to the White House about this Russia probe, but he wouldn't answer another question about whether he talked with the president about the campaign finance case in New York - the one involving President Trump's former fixer Michael Cohen. And Whitaker also refused to say whether he considers this Russia investigation a witch hunt, as the president does.

SHAPIRO: There was a lot of tug of war over whether and how this hearing was going to happen. And once the hearing started, there was also a lot of tug of war. Tell us about some of the fireworks in the room.

JOHNSON: Lots of raised voices, lots of interruptions. At one point, a Democratic congresswoman told Matt Whitaker, we're not joking here. Your humor is not acceptable. And things actually got off to a bad start, Ari. Take a listen to this early exchange between Jerry Nadler, the Democrat who is the new chairman of this committee, and Matt Whitaker.


JERRY NADLER: Now, in your capacity as acting attorney general, have you ever been asked to approve any request or action to be taken by the special counsel?

WHITAKER: Mr. Chairman, I see that your five minutes is up. And so...


WHITAKER: I - we - I am here voluntarily. I - we have agreed to five minute rounds. And...

JOHNSON: So that happened (laughter).

SHAPIRO: Yeah. Not typical for a witness to tell the chairman that his time is up, right?

JOHNSON: No. Democrats looked back at the witness in shock. Jerry Nadler seemed to find the whole thing funny once he had a moment to process what was happening. The Judiciary Committee has a lot of power over the Justice Department, so this could be a real who's sorry now moment moving forward.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. So that was the reaction from Democrats. What did Republican lawmakers have to say today?

JOHNSON: Well, Doug Collins, the top Republican on the committee, says the Democrats were engaged in character assassination of Matt Whitaker. At the start of the day, Collins advised people to get out their popcorn and get ready for the political theater. There was some of that.

SHAPIRO: He wasn't wrong.

JOHNSON: No. But on a more serious note, several Republicans pointed out how much the Justice Department does that involves people's lives - immigration, health care, opioid overdoses, civil rights. And those topics got short shrift today with so much focus on the Russia investigation. Of course, some Republicans also used their time to ask about Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump's opponent in 2016, and about the president's claims of wrongdoing by the FBI in 2016.

SHAPIRO: So as we said, by this time next week, there may be somebody new in charge at the Justice Department. Looking ahead, what do you see?

JOHNSON: Yeah. Bill Barr is likely to be confirmed by the Senate next week. He has a lot of experience in justice, served as AG in the 1990s. It's not clear what Matt Whitaker is going to do next - maybe a job at the Department of Homeland Security, I'm hearing. There are a lot of openings in the Trump administration right now, so he may have his pick.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Thank you, Carrie.

JOHNSON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.