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Whitaker Testifies before House Committee. Aired 9:30-10a ET

Aired February 8, 2019 - 09:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[09:30:00] POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Until they gavel in here. They're just getting setup. You already see the chairman, Jerry Nadler there, Democrat of New York.

Nia, to you. Let's not forget that it was about a week ago that Whitaker said the Mueller probe was close to getting wrapped up. So they're going to want to know about that as well here.

But it's clear from the opening statement that Whitaker -- that we just got that Whitaker does plan to assert, you know, that executive privilege may cover some of these answers in the future. So it sounds like there's a lot he's not going to answer.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: I think that's right. And we'll see how he approaches this. We'll see how this whole thing goes. This is a very, very big committee.

HARLOW: OK.

HENDERSON: This could be a lengthy hearing, but not necessarily of that informative, especially around those questions that Democrats want to know most of all.

HARLOW: All right, let's listen in. They just gaveled in. The chairman, Jerry Nadler, talking about --

REP. JERROLD NADLER (D), CHAIRMAN, JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: Representative Dingell was elected to Congress in 1955 and went on to become the longest-serving member of Congress in the history of the United States, and by virtue of enduring accomplishment, one of the greatest.

He was a presence in the hearing room, a determined investigator and a true believer in congressional oversight. He loved the House of Representatives. We remember him for his humor, his charm, his unshakeable integrity and, of course, his fantastic Twitter account.

Our thoughts are with our colleague Debbie Dingell and the entire Dingell family. Chairman Dingell will be missed.

COLLINS: Mr. Chairman? Could I just echo that as well? And for the...

NADLER: Mr. Collins.

COLLINS: ... you know, Mr. Dingell's service and also with our colleague Debbie during this time, our thoughts and prayers are with them and the service that he rendered. I'll agree with you on that. NADLER: Thank you.

I will now recognize myself for an opening statement.

Mr. Whitaker, I want to begin my remarks by commending the tradition of independent law enforcement at the Department of Justice. As you and I both know, it is the career officials at the department, the FBI and the U.S. attorneys' offices whose commitment to the rule of law protects our democracy.

NADLER: Given the focus of this hearing, I therefore feel compelled to single out for praise the career ethics officials who helped you transition into your role as acting attorney general.

On December 20th, in a letter from the department meant to justify some of the decisions we will examine here today, Congress learned the following. Quote, "In the meeting with the acting attorney general's senior staff, ethics officials concluded that if the recommendation was sought, they would advise that the acting attorney general should recuse himself from supervision of the special counsel investigation because it was their view that a reasonable person with knowledge of the relevant facts likely would question the impartiality of the acting attorney general," close quote.

In other words, even though you apparently did not ask for their advise on this topic, these career officials went out of their way to tell you that your many past public -- many public past criticisms of the special counsel's investigation were grounds for you to step aside. They insisted that your recusal would have been right for the department and good for the country.

They gave you this advice with no guarantee that their jobs would be protected two years into an administration distinguished for firing officials at the department and the FBI who offend the president. They did so knowing that Attorney General Sessions had just been removed for no reason other than following their guidance two years earlier.

Their advice to you is an act of bravery. It is worthy of the best tradition of independence and integrity at the Department of Justice. And in my view, your conduct, including your decision to ignore important ethics advice when you became acting attorney general no matter the consequences, falls well short of the mark.

Before you joined the Department of Justice as chief of staff to former Attorney General Sessions, you were the sole full-time employee of the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust. Your organization has been described by Republicans as, quote, "a chop shop of fake ethics complaints," unquote, against Democratic politicians. FACT, as it is called, also funded your appearances in print and on cable television in the years leading up to your tenure at DOJ.

These media appearances -- and this is why this is relevant -- have become the cause of much concern. One month before you joined the administration, you wrote a column titled, quote, "Mueller's Investigation of Trump Is Going Too Far," unquote. You stated that the investigation was, quote, "a lynch mob." You warned of serious consequences if the special counsel were to examine the president's personal finances. You suggested that the special counsel's budget should be squeezed until his investigation, quote, "grinds to almost a halt," unquote.

Like everyone else at the Department of Justice, you are entitled to your own political opinions. This committee should not be in the business of vilifying government personnel for their private views, particularly when the department makes steps to mitigate even the appearance of a conflict of interest in an ongoing investigation.

But when career officials of the department recommended that you take steps to mitigate your apparent conflicts of interest, when they told you that your public criticism of the special counsel is bad for the department and bad for the administration of justice, you ignored them.

You decided that your private interest in overseeing this particular investigation, and perhaps others from which you should have been recused, was more important than the integrity of the department.

The question that this committee must now ask is why?

Why did President Trump choose to replace Attorney General Sessions with an outspoken critic of the special counsel instead of with any number of qualified individuals who had already received Senate confirmation?

Why did you ignore the career officials who went to extraordinary lengths to tell you your continued involvement in the special counsel's work would undermine the credibility of the Department of Justice?

Why did you choose to comment at length of the substance of the special counsel's investigation at a January 29th press conference?

NADLER: Is a true that you have been, "fully briefed," unquote, on the investigation and that the special counsel's work is, quote, "close to being completed," unquote?

And why did President Trump leave you running the department in an acting capacity as long as he did? What did he hope to get out of it? What did you provide?

The committee is determined to find the answers to these questions today. To that end, we have taken certain steps to ensure your cooperation with members on both sides of the aisle.

First, although I am pleased you eventually agreed to appear here voluntarily, the committee has authorized me to issue a subpoena to compel your testimony if necessary. The ranking member will no doubt argue that the subpoena threat was a mistake, but, as you know, I gave you no assurances until after you had agreed to appear today.

Given our concerns about your attendance until late last night, taking steps to ensure your appearance seems perfectly appropriate.

Now that you are here and prepared to testify, I agree there's no need for us to resort to that measure for now.

I am nonetheless concerned by some of the arguments the department raised in the lengthy letter we received late yesterday. I very much doubt, for example, that any privilege attaches to communications about criminal investigations where the president, his campaign, his business and his close associates are subjects -- and in some cases targets -- of the investigation.

I also take issue with your written testimony, which we did not receive until almost midnight last night, when you suggest that you, quote, "will continue the longstanding executive branch policy and practice of not disclosing information that may be subject to executive privilege," close quote.

In other words, you reserve the right to refuse to answer the questions forever. That's not how it works.

Nearly three weeks ago, I provided you with a list of questions related to communications you may have had with the White House, about the circumstances of your hiring, the termination of Mr. Sessions and any insight you may have into the special counsel's investigation, among other topics. I gave you those questions in advance so that you would have time to consult with the White House on any possible question of executive privilege.

I understand that you may disagree with the committee about your responsibility to undertake that review. And as a consequence, you may not fully respond to every question we ask today.

As we discussed, I am willing to work with the department on those disagreements on a case-by-case basis. But I take your reluctance to answer questions about these communications as a deeply troubling sign.

When our members ask if you conveyed sensitive information to the president, or ignored ethics advice at the direction of the president, or worked with the White House to orchestrate the firing of your predecessor, the answer should be, "No."

Your failure to respond fully to our questions here today in no way limits the ability of this committee to get the answers in the longer run, even if you are a private citizen when we finally learn the truth. And although I am willing to work with the department to obtain this information, I will not allow that process to drag out for weeks and months. The time for this administration to postpone accountability is over.

It is my intent that there be no surprises today. We have laid all of the groundwork for this hearing out in the open. We have given you months to prepare. We have publicly documented every request we have made. We have provided our Republican colleagues with a meaningful opportunity to weigh in on the process.

We have nothing to hide from you or anyone else. We hope you have nothing to hide from us. Despite the ethics advice you were given, Mr. Whitaker, you insisted on remaining in charge of the special counsel's investigation, a job that comes with responsibility to protect the special counsel until his work is complete.

Your testimony here today is vital to that responsibility, and to our shared responsibility to find the truth, to protect the department and to follow the facts and the law to their conclusion.

Thank you.

It is now my pleasure to recognize the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, the gentleman from Georgia, Mr. Collins, for his opening statement.

COLLINS: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

And thank you, Acting Attorney General, for being here.

But I would like to thank -- I'll start off this way. I also want to thank the chairman for a show of honesty. We now have the reason for this hearing. It has nothing to do with the oversight of DOJ.

It has everything to do -- as we found out this morning in a document dump from the Democratic side of this committee, and also another committee, that this is nothing more than a character assassination. And we're going to also decide to see if we can just do something and get at the president while we have the chance.

Yesterday -- I want to tell you a story. I used to -- my kids are now grown. They're 26 and down to 20. And I used to always love the Easter season and the time of, especially, hide-and-seek and going to find, you know, eggs, and that look on their face when they found that -- that last egg they were looking for, just that look of surprise.

And yesterday was that for me again. I was back being a father again. Because yesterday was nothing but pure political theater. It was wonderful. It was a time for hide-and-seek. The chairman had a hearing. "Let's do a subpoena. We're going to stand tough."

And let's just do the timeline real quick. We get through with it. And as I had warned this committee, a pre-emptive subpoena was not a good idea. It chills all of the witnesses coming before this committee, and will probably have a detrimental effect to the acting attorney general.

But, hey, I'm the minority. Who cares? So we do it. And the acting attorney general's office responded. At about 5 o'clock, the chairman sent a letter saying, "We know (ph). We'll examine it on a case-by- case basis."

The acting attorney general said, "No, we need assurance that you're not going to issue a subpoena today or -- yesterday or today."

So, OK, we're back and forth. DOJ, as I understand it, said, "No, that's not enough assurance." And we were informed around a certain time last night, about 7 o'clock last night, that an agreement had been made and it was a full cave by the committee chairman. No subpoenas today. So everything that we did earlier in the day was a complete waste of time.

Now, what was even worse about this -- and let's talk about, you know, Twitter accounts -- last night around 8 o'clock, the chairman's Twitter account said acting attorney general was going to show up today at 9:30.

The interesting thing about that is, is they linked to the 5 o'clock letter, not this letter, which I ask now to be admitted to the record -- which, by the way, I was cc'd on but never -- you know, I guess this is it.

But we're going to put this into the record now, the letter to the acting attorney general in which the chairman of this committee says, "There will be no subpoena tomorrow, and any differences we have we'll work on later." And I ask unanimous consent that it be entered into the record.

NADLER: Without objection.

COLLINS: So at 8 o'clock, we decide to send out a tweet to the world, which many in the media, by the way, picked up on and have run stories today, saying the reason -- the Judiciary chairman wins, the attorney general's coming, he doesn't have assurances. No, he does. Right here. There's going to be no subpoena today.

So when we talk about transparency, which was so evident yesterday, now we get to the real meat of the issue.

It is also amazing to me, as I said yesterday, when you come here and you put an issue of this hearing -- on Thursday, Bill Barr was approved out of the Senate Judiciary Committee. By next Thursday, he will be the attorney general.

This gentleman right here is finishing up the last term of acting attorney general. He's willingly -- was willing to come, but yet we had the charade yesterday. This hearing is pointless.

And, basically, it was made even more pointless by the chairman's opening statement. This is not about what the -- the good men and women at the Department of Justice are doing. This is not about FBI agents who are doing their job.

It could be about the FBI issues that we on our side have talked about, that didn't do their job. And we'll probably hear a lot about that today. There's plenty of frustration of issues of DOJ oversight.

COLLINS: But, sir, I'm not sure, frankly, that the oversight of your financial situation from 2014 -- from 2014 to 2016 has anything to do with this hearing. It's beyond the scope of this hearing.

So if this is what we're going to do, if this is where we're going, then I want to remind everyone that this is not the Senate. If my friends on the other side of the aisle of this committee wanted to do a confirmation hearing, they just ought to set it up front. And if they want to do a confirmation hearing on senators, run for Senate.

This is not a confirmation hearing. This is a Department of Justice Oversight hearing supposedly -- oops, oops. I'm sorry. Back to theatrics again. The curtain opened up and we found out what was really going on. No, we want to damage the president. We want to talk about your private conversations. We want to talk about what you did and why the president -- a most amazing quote I just heard a moment ago. We want to know why the president may have put you there for what -- that's offensive.

When we look at this and we go through this, Mr. Whitaker, there are a lot of issues that we've discussed personally and there's also as far as knowing this and discussing things that we could do at Oversight that, frankly, on our side we're frustrated with, and that's going to come out today.

But for the chairman to do what we did yesterday, to have this hide- and-seek game, to play it all along, and then to willingly mislead the press and everybody else to think you're coming here today because of a partial assurance, not a full-blown cave, which is exactly what happened in his letter, is a travesty not only to this committee, but to the people watching and the reporters who thought it was real.

When we look forward into this hearing today, it's time on this one -- if this is the way we're going to go, then we'll have plenty of stunts. We're going to have plenty of theatrics. Bring your popcorn. I'm thinking about maybe we just set up a popcorn machine in the back, because that what this is becoming, it's becoming a show.

When your presence was here, you were coming voluntarily. You've always said you're coming voluntarily.

So we had the show yesterday. We now have had the curtain drop down and, Mr. Whitaker, I guess your confirmation hearing's here. You've only got five days left on the job or six days left on the job. We could join together with the chairman and say, "Mr. Barr, come in here," because you've been actually -- the attorney general, Mr. Barr, he's been the attorney general. He's been before this committee before. We could've had substantive hearings, but no, we're going to have a show. Dog and pony show. Let's get it out.

This is the most amazing thing when I -- you know, that I go back something. Sometimes as a father -- I started this as a father. I'm going to end this as a father. I give my kids advice and they look at me like, "Dad, I love you," but then they give me that sort of dog look. "I don't believe you."

You know the sad part of this is? We predicted it all yesterday. We knew what was coming.

The sad part of it is the chairman chose to play hide-and-seek. He chose to cave at the end and, by the way, still not have open and transparency.

I'm glad we did. I'm glad we got it now. But this is no way to run the railroad, and it's definitely no way to run one of the most prestigious committees in this House. And this is something that everyone should be concerned about.

There's enough at DOJ for us to do oversight on, but Mr. Whitaker, this is your life. Like the old TV show, they just want a piece of you.

And with that, Mr. Chairman, pursuant to Clause 4, Rule 16i (ph), I do now move to adjourn.

(UNKNOWN): Mr. Chairman...

NADLER: A motion to adjourn has been made. A motion is to adjourn is not debatable.

All in favor of the motion to adjourn say aye.

Opposed nay.

The noes have it.

COLLINS: Roll call.

NADLER: A roll call has been requested. Where's the clerk? The clerk -- if the clerk is here, she will call the roll. We'll wait a moment for the clerk.

(UNKNOWN): No, (inaudible).

NADLER: Where's the clerk?

COLLINS: Mr. Chair...

NADLER: The roll call is in progress.

(UNKNOWN): Mr. Chairman...

NADLER: The clerk is prepared. The clerk will call the roll.

CLERK: Mr. Chairman.

NADLER: No.

CLERK: Mr. Chairman votes no.

Ms. Lofgren?

LOFGREN: No.

CLERK: Ms. Lofgren votes no.

Ms. Jackson Lee? Ms. Jackson Lee votes no.

Mr. Cohen? Mr. Cohen votes no.

Mr. Johnson? Mr. Johnson votes no.

Mr. Deutch? Mr. Deutch votes no. Ms. Bass? Ms. Bass votes no.

Mr. Richmond? Mr. Richmond votes no.

Mr. Jeffries?

JEFFRIES: No.

CLERK: Mr. Jeffries votes no.

Mr. Cicilline?

CICILLINE: So we may continue to pursue the truth, I vote no.

CLERK: Mr. Cicilline votes no.

Mr. Swalwell?

SWALWELL: No.

CLERK: Mr. Swalwell votes no.

Mr. Lieu? Mr. Lieu votes no.

Mr. Raskin?

RASKIN: No.

CLERK: Mr. Raskin votes no.

Ms. Jayapal? Ms. Jayapal votes no.

Ms. Demings? Ms. Demings votes no.

Mr. Correa?

CORREA: No.

CLERK: Mr. Correa votes no.

Ms. Scanlon?

SCANLON: No.

CLERK: Ms. Scanlon votes no.

Ms. Garcia?

GARCIA: No.

CLERK: Ms. Garcia votes no.

Mr. Neguse?

NEGUSE: No.

CLERK: Mr. Neguse votes no.

Ms. McBath?

MCBATH: No.

CLERK: Ms. McBath votes no.

Mr. Stanton?

STANTON: No.

CLERK: Mr. Stanton votes no.

Ms. Dean?

DEAN: No.

CLERK: Ms. Dean votes no.

Ms. Mucarsel-Powell?

MUCARSEL-POWELL: No.

CLERK: Ms. Mucarsel-Powell votes no.

Ms. Escobar?

ESCOBAR: No.

CLERK: Ms. Escobar votes no.

Mr. Collins? Mr. Collins votes yes.

Mr. Sensenbrenner?

Mr. Chabot?

CHABOT: Aye.

CLERK: Mr. Chabot votes aye.

Mr. Gohmert? Mr. Gohmert votes aye.

Mr. Jordan? Mr. Jordan votes yes.

Mr. Buck?

Mr. Ratcliffe?

Ms. Roby?

Mr. Gates?

Mr. Johnson?

Mr. Biggs? Mr. Biggs votes aye. Mr. McClintock? Mr. McClintock votes aye.

Ms. Lesko?

LESKO: Aye.

CLERK: Ms. Lesko votes aye.

Mr. Reschenthaler?

Mr. Klein? Mr. Klein votes aye.

Ms. Armstrong? Ms. Armstrong votes aye.

Mr. Steube?

Are there any other members wishing to vote?

NADLER: Who hasn't voted? Gentlemen from Texas? Are there any other members who wish to vote who haven't voted?

CLERK: Mr. Ratcliffe votes aye. Yes.

NADLER: Clerk will report.

CLERK: Mr. Chairman, there are 24 noes and 10 ayes.

NADLER: The motion to adjourn is not approved.

I will now introduce today's witness.

Matthew G. Whitaker is the acting attorney general of the United States.

Previously, Mr. Whitaker served as chief of staff to Attorney General Jeff Sessions. He was appointed as the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Iowa on June 15th, 2004, by President George W. Bush. Before that, he was a managing partner of the Des Moines-based law firm Whitaker Hagenow & Gustoff LLP. He was also the executive director for FACT, the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust between 2014 and 2017. Mr. Whitaker graduated with a master's in business administration, juris doctor and bachelor of arts from the University of Iowa.

We welcome Mr. Whitaker, and we thank him for participating in today's hearing.

Now, if you would please rise, I will begin by swearing you in. Raise your right arm.

Do you swear or affirm under penalty of perjury that the testimony you're about to give is true and correct to the best of your knowledge, information and belief, so help you God?

WHITAKER: (OFF-MIKE)

NADLER: Thank you.

Let the record show that the witnesses answered in the affirmative. Thank you and be -- and please be seated.

Please note that your written testimony will be entered into the record in its entirety.

Accordingly, the -- I ask that you summarize your testimony in five minutes. To help you stay within that time, there is a timing light on your table. When the light switches from green to yellow, you will have one minute to conclude your testimony. When the light turns red, it signals the time is expired.

Mr. Whitaker?

WHITAKER: Thank you, Mr. Chairman and Ranking Member Collins, for the opportunity to testify before the committee today. I am looking forward to discussing with you some of the accomplishments and priorities of the Department of Justice.

Before I start, I would also like to acknowledge the passing of former Chairman Dingell. He was a -- a statesman and a leader and it -- it is a sad day in this committee, I am sure.

First of all, let me say that it is an honor to represent the 115,000 men and women of Department of Justice. The department is blessed with extremely talented, highly principled public servants who are dedicated to upholding our great Constitution and the laws of the United States.

I saw that up close during my five and a half years as United States attorney for the Southern District of Iowa. Our office put criminals behind bars and we kept the people of Iowa safe. I personally prosecuted several important criminal cases and worked with the men and women of the ATF, DEA, FBI and U.S. Marshal Service and our state, local and federal partners. It was a privilege.

In 2017, I returned to the department and served for 13 months of -- as chief of staff to former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a man for whom I have great respect. He led the department with integrity, with dedication to the rule of law, and with a commitment to carrying out the policies of the president of the United States. I am deeply honored that the president selected me to continue this work at the department.

The Senate will soon consider president's nomination for next attorney general, and let me just say this: No one is more qualified than Bill Barr. I am working to ensure that he will inherit a strong, confident and effective Department of Justice, and I believe that he will.

For the last three months, I have had the privilege of serving as acting attorney general and I'm impressed every single day for the dedication and hard work of our agents, our attorneys and our support staff.

Over this time, I have visited a number of our offices and met with federal prosecutors from across the country. For example, in December, we held our Projects Safe Neighborhoods Conference, where employees from nearly every U.S. attorney's office and hundreds of our state and local partners celebrated our successes in reduction of violent crime.

Our hard work is paying off. I firmly believe that your constituents are safer because of the work that we have done over the past two years. Under this administration, crime is down and police morale is up.

In fiscal year 2017, the Justice Department charged the largest number of violent crime defendants since we started to track this category back when Bill Barr was attorney general the last time. And then, in fiscal year 2018, we broke that record again by a margin of nearly 15 percent.

We also charged more defendants with gun crimes than ever before. In fact we broke that record by a margin of 17 percent. The department has also banned bump stocks, improved the background check system and prosecuted those who lied to get a gun.

Our work is having an impact. In 2017, after two years of increases under the previous administration, violent crime and homicide rates went down nationwide. We do not have official numbers yet for 2018, but one estimate projected that the murder rate in our 29 biggest cities would drop by 7.6 percent. Those are real lives being saved.

Much of the crime in this country is related to drug abuse and drug trafficking. But under this administration, prescriptions for the seven most friendly abused prescription drugs are down more than 21 percent, to the lowest level in at least a decade. At the same time, the DEA has lowered the legal limits on production of the active ingredients in these prescription opioids by 47 percent since 2016.

And there is no doubt in the law enforcement community that the vast majority of the illegal drugs in this country are coming through our southern border. There is also no doubt that criminals and cartels seek to exploit weaknesses in our southern border for their own profits and purposes, including by subjecting women and children to dangerous and unspeakable conditions in an attempt to smuggle them into the United States.

And of course, the dangers of our porous southern border become all more apparent every time an illegal alien causes harm or death to an innocent American across this country, such as what happened to an outstanding young woman from my home state Sarah Root.

For this reason and for others, we continue our efforts to restore the rule of law at the border and in our immigration system.

In fiscal year 2018, we charged more defendants with illegal entry than in any other year in American history. In fact, we charged 85 percent more defendants with illegally entering America than we did the previous year. At the same time, we increased the number of felony illegal re-entry prosecutions by more than 38 percent.

Whatever our views on immigration policy, we should all be opposed to illegal immigration and we should support these efforts.

The department is also taking decisive action against human trafficking, both domestically and internationally. Human traffickers, like other criminal enterprises, take advantage of our southern porous border to smuggle women and children into the United States to exploit them. We are bringing prosecutions to dismantle transnational trafficking networks that lure victims across our borders and traffic them for profit. Last year, the Department of Justice secured a record of 526 human trafficking convictions, a 5 percent increase from the previous year.

The department is also doing its part to aggressively prosecute hate crimes. Under this administration, we indicted 50 hate crime defendants and obtained 30 hate crime convictions in fiscal year 2018.

WHITAKER: In November, the department provided election monitoring in polling places around the country. Our Civil Rights Division deployed personnel to 35 districts in 19 states to monitor for compliance with federal voting rights laws.

[09:59:53]

Our Public Integrity Section prosecutors served as subject matter experts for federal prosecutors and investigators nationwide working with the FBI at the Strategic Information and Operations Center.

Over my time as acting attorney general, I have done everything in my power to continue regular order at the Department of Justice.