WASHINGTON — The Justice Department this year repeatedly pledged to make the prosecutor investigating the president’s son available for public testimony.
But when special counsel David Weiss appeared before the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, it was for a closed-door deposition rather than a televised hearing.
The interview was part of Republicans’ impeachment inquiry against President Joe Biden, whom they claim has helped his son Hunter Biden’s business deals and protected him from prosecution.
The decision to interview Weiss privately, however, likely reflects the challenges Republicans face in arguing that the Justice Department has shown favoritism to the president’s son even as it’s prosecuting him for multiple crimes. Weiss has consistently said he’s had free rein to handle the case, a message he repeated this week.
“I am, and have been, the decision-maker on this case,” Weiss said in a public statement accompanying his private testimony, adding that he’s never been blocked or prevented from pursuing charges or investigatory steps.
Weiss was appointed by former President Donald Trump as the U.S. attorney for Delaware in 2017, and Attorney General Merrick Garland has said he kept Weiss in his job so he could finish the Hunter Biden case. Garland elevated Weiss to special counsel status in August, giving him more freedom to bring charges and the responsibility to submit a full report to the Justice Department after the case concludes.
Republicans initially wanted Weiss for both a deposition and a public hearing, according to two sources familiar with negotiations, but when the Justice Department said they had to pick one, they chose the deposition.
Depositions have some clear advantages. Knowledgeable committee members and staff can drill down into details and obtain new information without worrying that a TV audience can follow along, and witnesses can give answers without worrying that a grandstanding lawmaker will try to make a spectacle of them.
But depositions also have disadvantages. For one, the material only becomes public if the committee decides to release it, and lawmakers can use selective leaks to convey a misleading picture of the testimony. Democrats say that’s what Republicans have been doing with a series of depositions with six Justice Department officials in recent weeks.
“Why do the Republicans want it behind closed doors and not out for the whole public to see?”
“Why do the Republicans want it behind closed doors and not out for the whole public to see?” Rep. Dan Goldman (D-N.Y.), who attended part of the Weiss deposition, told HuffPost. “The answer is because they want to do what they’ve been doing with every transcribed interview, which is to take things out of context, to cherry-pick things, to mislead and misrepresent what these witnesses have said, because they have no evidence to support their allegations.”
Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) said Tuesday that Weiss, in his testimony, contradicted his prior statements that he had full authority to pursue charges against Hunter Biden how he wanted. Specifically, Weiss said he requested “special attorney” status last year, according to Jordan, which would have allowed him to bring charges outside of Delaware. Jordan claimed Weiss said a Justice Department official denied the request.
“That’s how he never once got the status and didn’t get any type of special counsel status at all until he asked for it on Aug. 8 and was given it on Aug. 11,” Jordan said.
If Weiss said he requested special attorney status from the Justice Department and got denied, that would confirm testimony previously given by Gary Shapley, a career IRS agent who told lawmakers earlier this year that the Justice Department stifled his team’s efforts to investigate Hunter Biden’s taxes.
Goldman said Jordan offered a misleading picture of the anecdote. Weiss told lawmakers, according to Goldman, that he was only told he couldn’t have special attorney status because he hadn’t already asked to partner with prosecutors in the states with proper jurisdiction. “The response was, ‘You will have whatever authority you need, but go through the proper process and sequencing, and special attorney jumps a step.’”
Those prosecutors, Martin Estrada for the Central District of California and Matthew Graves for the District of Columbia, sat for transcribed interviews last month. According to a transcript obtained by HuffPost, Estrada said he didn’t know if Weiss had requested special attorney authority. He also said that while his office had declined to partner with Weiss on tax charges in California, he nevertheless said he’d give office space and staff support to attorneys working the case under Weiss.
Goldman said Weiss wound up not requesting special attorney status because he negotiated a plea deal with Hunter Biden instead, with the president’s son agreeing to admit guilt to gun and tax crimes in exchange for immunity from further charges. After the deal collapsed over a disagreement about the scope of that immunity, Weiss went for special counsel status.
“It’s important to understand how extraordinary it is that [Weiss] testified. No prosecutor would ever testify before Congress or would ever speak publicly about an ongoing criminal investigation because its confidentiality is not only required by the law, but it is essential for our execution of justice,” Goldman said. “And he nonetheless came here to address the false allegations from the Republicans that there has been some kind of interference.”
Whether Jordan made a misleading statement about the Weiss testimony or not, it certainly created a game of telephone, with different people offering different accounts of what was said.
Goldman served as a staff counsel for the House Judiciary Committee in 2019, when Democrats conducted an impeachment inquiry against Trump. Democrats interviewed witnesses both in closed depositions and in made-for-TV public hearings, with Goldman frequently asking the questions.
In letters to the Judiciary Committee this fall, the Justice Department repeatedly offered for Weiss to testify. It’s part of a strategy for the department to accommodate requests from lawmakers as much as possible, weakening any eventual lawsuits alleging that a request has been stonewalled. Republicans justified opening the impeachment inquiry in part, they claimed, because the Justice Department has not been cooperative and might need to be taken to court.
“We have sent seven letters, made an initial production of documents, and committed to making Mr. Weiss available for a public hearing before the Committee,” Assistant Attorney General Carlos Uriarte wrote in a September letter to Jordan.
The House Oversight Committee, which is running the impeachment inquiry in concert with the Judiciary Committee and the Ways and Means Committee, has shown the pitfalls of public hearings.
At an Oversight meeting in July, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) displayed pornographic images of Hunter Biden obtained from his hard drive, giving a more salacious impression of the investigation than Republicans had hoped to project. At another Oversight hearing in September, Republicans’ own witnesses said there wasn’t enough evidence to impeach the president.
Oversight Committee Chair James Comer (R-Ky.) told reporters in October that he didn’t know if he wanted to hold any more public hearings with witnesses, lamenting the traditional hearing format that gives each lawmaker five minutes to ask questions. Members come and go from the hearing room and sometimes ask the same questions. Sometimes they just make little speeches.
“You can do more with a deposition,” Comer said.