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Matthew Whitaker to appear before House panel Friday after subpoena fight

Posted at 6:39 AM, Feb 08, 2019

Acting attorney general Matt Whitaker will in fact testify before the House Judiciary Committee on Friday, following a lengthy fight between House Democrats and the Justice Department that placed Whitaker's appearance in doubt for much of Thursday.

Whitaker's testimony will give Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee the chance to question him about his views on special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation , any actions he's taken related to the probe and his decision not to recuse from the special counsel investigation after Justice Department ethics officials recommended he do so.

It's not clear whether he will answer those questions, or whether he will face a subpoena if he does not do so.

But it appears that Justice Department and House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler of New York struck an agreement over Whitaker's appearance after he threatened on Thursday not to appear amid a furious back-and-forth between the committee and the Justice Department over a possible subpoena.

On Thursday morning, the committee's Democrats authorized Nadler to issue a subpoena for Whitaker -- which Nadler said he would only use if Whitaker refused to answer questions he had posed that included Whitaker's conversations with the White House about Mueller's investigation.

In response, the Justice Department sent Nadler a letter stating that Whitaker would not testify without a written assurance from Nadler that he would not issue a subpoena before or during the hearing.

Nadler told the Justice Department in a follow-up letter that he could assure Whitaker he would not issue a subpoena on Friday, so long as he was prepared to answer questions from the panel's members.

"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," Nadler wrote.

Nadler's letter alone wasn't enough to convince Whitaker to testify, but Justice Department spokesperson Kerri Kupec said Whitaker received the necessary assurances in "subsequent communications."

"The chairman has made the commitment that we requested, and agreed that, if Mr. Whitaker voluntarily appears at tomorrow's hearing, the Committee will not issue a subpoena on or before February 8," Kupec said in a statement. "In light of that commitment, Acting Attorney General Whitaker looks forward to voluntarily appearing at tomorrow's hearing and discussing the great work of the Department of Justice."

Whitaker's testimony comes just days before he is likely to vacate his post as acting Attorney General. William Barr, President Donald Trump's nominee to be his permanent Attorney General, is on track to be confirmed by the full Senate next week, after he was advanced on Thursday by the Senate Judiciary Committee .

Since Whitaker was tapped to replace Jeff Sessions in November as acting attorney general, he has been under fire from Democrats for his public comments criticizing the special counsel's investigation.

Democrats demanded he recuse himself, and have called for an investigation into his decision not to recuse despite the recommendation from DOJ ethics officials. But Whitaker has not appeared to take any actions with regard to the Mueller investigation, and he's left the day-to-day supervision to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who was supervising the probe when Sessions was attorney general and recused himself.

Thursday's subpoena fight between Nadler and DOJ capped weeks' worth of disputes over Whitaker's testimony.

In January, Nadler also threatened to issue a subpoena to Whitaker for his testimony if he did not agree to appear, saying that Whitaker was backtracking on a previous promise to testify in the first month of the new Congress. The committee and Justice Department eventually agreed he would voluntarily appear on February 8.

This week Republicans slammed Nadler for pre-emptively planning a subpoena for a witness who had voluntarily agreed to testify, saying it was setting a troubling precedent.

"A subpoena should only follow a breakdown of the accommodation process and as a last resort against persons seeking to frustrate legitimate oversight on this committee," said Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the committee's top Republican. "There has been no breakdown here."


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