UPDATE (8:36 p.m. EST Thursday): Whitaker agreed to appear for the hearing at 9:30 a.m. Friday, House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler said in a tweet Thursday evening. Later Thursday, the Department of Justice released a statement confirming Whitaker’s scheduled appearance.
“Acting Attorney General Whitaker looks forward to voluntarily appearing at tomorrow’s hearing and discussing the great work of the Department of Justice,” the statement from DOJ spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said.
WASHINGTON ― Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker is trying to back out of his scheduled Friday testimony before the House Judiciary Committee after the committee voted to subpoena him if he refuses to answer questions about conversations he had with President Donald Trump and invokes executive privilege.
In a letter to House Judiciary Chairman Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd wrote that Whitaker would not testify unless the committee assures the Justice Department by 6 p.m. that it will not issue a subpoena for Whitaker today or tomorrow and that the committee would engage in “good faith negotiations” with DOJ before issuing a subpoena.
By Thursday night, Nadler had attempted to keep Friday’s hearing on schedule, writing in a letter to Whitaker that “there will be no need for the Committee to issue a subpoena” if Whitaker is prepared to answer questions tomorrow. “To the extent that you believe you are unable to fully respond to any specific question, we are prepared to handle your concerns on a case-by-case basis, both during and after tomorrow’s hearing,” he wrote.
The high-stakes exchange came after several weeks of negotiations between the Justice Department and the Judiciary Committee; Whitaker is set to testify voluntarily on Friday about a number of topics. House Democrats plan to press him on his conversations with Trump about special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
If Whitaker does testify, the letter said, he would say “at no time did the White House ask for, or did the Acting Attorney General provide, any promises or commitments concerning the Special Counsel’s investigation.”
A senior Justice Department official, speaking on background, told reporters Thursday afternoon that Whitaker had been “working hard” this week to prepare for his testimony, but that he wasn’t going to testify under threat of subpoena on Friday.
“It’s not the appropriate process... to subpoena first, talk later,” the senior official said. Whitaker, the official said, is “ready and willing to appear” under the original terms.
Whitaker, who headed up a conservative organization that targeted Democrats and critiqued the Mueller investigation in cable news hits before joining the Justice Department, was named acting attorney general following the forced resignation of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions in November. Whitaker previously served as a U.S. attorney during the Bush administration but was not serving in a Senate-confirmed Justice Department role when he was named acting attorney general, making his lengthy term as head of DOJ historically unprecedented.
The Justice Department issued this statement from Whitaker:
“Weeks ago, in good faith, I voluntarily agreed to appear and testify on February 8 before the House Judiciary Committee. We have devoted considerable resources and numerous hours to my preparation, and I have looked forward to discussing the important work of the great men and women of the Department of Justice. Unfortunately, the Committee now has deviated from historic practice and protocol and taken the unnecessary and premature step of authorizing a subpoena to the me, the Acting Attorney General, even though I had agreed to voluntarily appear. Such unprecedented action breaches our prior agreement and circumvents the constitutionally required accommodation process. Based upon today’s action, it is apparent that the Committee’s true intention is not to discuss the great work of the Department of Justice, but to create a public spectacle. Political theater is not the purpose of an oversight hearing, and I will not allow that to be the case.
The news came out around the same time as William Barr, President Donald Trump’s nominee for attorney general was cleared by the Senate Judiciary Committee. Barr is expected to be confirmed by the full Republican-controlled Senate in the near future.
Read the full letter below.
This article has been updated to include Rep. Jerrold Nadler’s message saying Whitaker would appear Friday morning.