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Whitaker Says He Hasn't Interfered In Mueller Probe


Musical chairs at the Justice Department. The acting attorney general, Matthew Whitaker, is likely to be out of that job next week. The U.S. Senate is expected to confirm his successor, William Barr, within a few days. But he certainly made an impression on Democrats on his way out of the door yesterday. NPR's national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson joins us. Carrie, thanks so much for being with us.


SIMON: Democrats on the committee had a lot of questions for Matthew Whitaker - the Russia investigation, other things, too. How did he handle them? Did he?

JOHNSON: Well Scott, how do you say so-so in Yiddish? Eh.

SIMON: Eh, is that Yiddish? (Laughter) I know what you mean though. OK, yeah.

JOHNSON: (Laughter) Matt Whitaker got bombarded with questions about the Russia investigation. Here's what he had to say.


MATTHEW WHITAKER: We have followed the special counsel's regulations to a T. 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.

JOHNSON: Now, Matt Whitaker said this probe is going to be over when the special counsel, Bob Mueller, says it's over. But he refused to say the special counsel was not engaged in a witch hunt. He also refused to answer questions about whether he's talked with President Trump about a separate campaign finance investigation in New York. That's the one where Trump's former fixer, Michael Cohen, has pleaded guilty and implicated the president.

SIMON: Now, Carrie, you've covered a lot of congressional hearings over the years. All jokes aside, a lot of them could be sleep aids. This one was not, right? This was notable for its fireworks.

JOHNSON: Very notable. This is the first chance that Democrats in the U.S. House got to conduct oversight of the Justice Department. They were determined to make the most of it. Problem is, this witness, Matt Whitaker, was ready to rumble. Take a listen to this exchange between Jerry Nadler, the chairman of the committee, and the witness.


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: We - I am - I'm here voluntarily. I - we have agreed to five-minute rounds and...

JOHNSON: Now, Scott, members of Congress don't usually get checked by the witness. Democrats were shocked. Jerry Nadler seemed to laugh after a few moments. Of course, he has some control over the Justice Department and subpoena power, so he may have the last laugh here.

SIMON: I'm going to guess the Republicans didn't say, you make some fine points, my fellow members on the committee, did they?

JOHNSON: (Laughter) Not at all. Doug Collins, the top Republican on the committee, said get out your popcorn, get ready for political theater today. He also called the Democrats engaged in character assassination. Republicans did have some substantive critique, though. There weren't many questions to the head of the Justice Department about opioid overdoses or health care or civil rights and not very many questions about immigration or the family separation policy either. Of course, some Republicans did use their time yesterday to ask, again, about Hillary Clinton, President Trump's opponent in the 2016 campaign.

SIMON: Carrie, do you have any insight into what's next for Matt Whitaker? He'll be out of the Justice Department in a few days.

JOHNSON: A few days, the Senate's likely to confirm Whitaker's successor, William Barr, this coming week. Barr has a lot of experience, served as AG in the 1990s. It's not clear what Matt Whitaker is going to do next. One source of mine suggested he might go to the Department of Homeland Security. We know there are a lot of job openings in the Trump administration right now, and President Trump's a fan of Whitaker. He's likely to find a safe place for him. In fact, Scott, The New York Times has reported Matt Whitaker was celebrating his testimony last night at the Trump Hotel here in Washington.

SIMON: National justice correspondent Carrie Johnson, thanks so much for being with us.

JOHNSON: Happy to do it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.