Whitaker denies meddling in Mueller’s Russia probe

NEWLY EMPOWERED::US Democrats grilled the acting attorney general on his criticism of the special counsel’s work and his refusal to recuse himself from overseeing it

AP, WASHINGTON

Sun, Feb 10, 2019 - Page 4

US Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker on Friday said he has “not interfered in any way” in the special counsel’s Russia investigation as he faced a contentious and partisan congressional hearing in his waning days on the job.

The hearing before the US House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary was the first, and likely only, chance for newly empowered US Democrats to grill an attorney general they perceive as a loyalist to US President Donald Trump and whose appointment they suspect was aimed at suppressing investigations of the Republican president.

They confronted Whitaker on his past criticism of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s work and his refusal to recuse himself from overseeing it, attacked him over his prior business dealings and challenged his credentials as the US’ chief law enforcement officer.

Yet Democrats yielded no new information about the status of the Mueller probe as Whitaker repeatedly refused to discuss conversations with the president or answer questions that he thought might reveal details.

Although exasperated, Whitaker sought to assuage Democratic concerns by saying that he had never discussed the Mueller probe with Trump or other White House officials, and that there had been no change in its “overall management.”

“We have followed the special counsel’s regulations to a T,” Whitaker said. “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.”

Republican lawmakers made clear that they viewed the hearing as pointless political grandstanding, especially since Whitaker might have less than a week left in the job, and some respected his wishes by asking questions about topics other than Mueller’s probe into potential coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign.

The US Senate is expected to vote as soon as next week on confirming William Barr, Trump’s pick for attorney general.

Whitaker toggled between defending his role in the special counsel’s investigation and echoing the president’s talking points.

He said he had no reason to doubt Mueller’s honesty or to believe that he was conflicted in his leadership of the investigation.

He said his comment at an unrelated news conference last week that the Mueller investigation was close to wrapping up — a remark that generated significant attention and speculation — reflected only “my position as acting attorney general.”

Mueller would finish on his own schedule, he added.

Nadler on Friday said he wanted Whitaker to return for a deposition in the coming weeks.