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Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker Grilled Before Congress. Aired 3-3:30p ET
Aired February 8, 2019 - 15:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
MATTHEW WHITAKER, ACTING U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: And so they showed up every day, like dedicated public servants, and did their job, knowing that you here in Congress would ultimately pay them and come to some resolution of the shutdown.
REP. GREG STANTON (D), ARIZONA: We appreciate your recognition of that.
I think every person up here, a bipartisan way, would agree that the work of the rank-and-file members of the Department of Justice, FBI, the other enforcement officials is outstanding. It seems appropriate then that the department did issue a memorandum saying that, during the time of the shutdown, ancillary functions of the department that involved travel would be not allowed. Is that accurate?
WHITAKER: I don't have that memo in front of me, but that is consistent with my understanding of our guidance in that regard.
STANTON: On January 13, 2019, in the middle of the government shutdown, did you travel to give a speech to the Heritage Foundation?
WHITAKER: Congressman, this is an important question, but I want to be very clear. I have 24/7 security detail that drives me everywhere.
And so the term travel, I'm not sure what you mean. I went to Capitol Hill to give a speech to the Heritage Foundation, yes.
STANTON: OK. Would you consider that activity, a speech to the Heritage Foundation, to be an ancillary function of the department?
WHITAKER: Congressman, again, I had no other way to get to a speech that I had committed to give before the shutdown.
STANTON: Thank you.
The speech involved the topic of RFRA and the -- commemorate RFRA. In October 2017, during the time that you were chief of staff to the attorney general, the attorney general's office did issue guidance on federal law for religious liberty.
The guidance involved expansion of exemptions to RFRA. At a religious liberty summit held in summer 2018, Attorney General Sessions announced the formation of the Religious Liberty Task Force to further coordinate implementation of the guidance across the federal departments and agencies.
It's fair to say that there's been limited public information on the task force and its work. The only public documentation is a two-page memorandum significant establishing the task force. Are you aware of any additional documents or guidance that further explain the task force's mandate and processes?
WHITAKER: No, I'm not familiar with any additional...
STANTON: You know what the budget is of the task force?
WHITAKER: I do not believe, as I sit here today, that we have actually effectuated the task force yet. And so I don't -- again, it's going to be an internal task force that would come.
They would have no specific separate budget.
STANTON: Will you commit that, during the remaining time that you're attorney -- acting attorney general, to provide this committee any additional details regarding that task force, which has been in place now for I guess seven months or more?
WHITAKER: Yes, Congressman, I will be happy to follow up in writing with you or someone from the Office of Legislative Affairs about that Religious Liberty Task Force.
STANTON: Recently, HHS interpreted RFRA to allow a Christian-based foster cage -- foster care agency that does receive federal tax dollars to discriminate against a potential foster parent because they happen to be Jewish.
Do you know if the Justice Department stands behind this HHS determination that a taxpayer-subsidized organization can discriminate against a Jewish individual?
WHITAKER: I am certain that the Department of Justice will defend that -- that position of a sister agency.
STANTON: Thank you very much.
REP. JERROLD NADLER (D), NEW YORK: The time of the gentleman has expired.
REP. MADELEINE DEAN (D), PENNSYLVANIA: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
And thank you, Mr. Whitaker, for agreeing to appear before us today. And I'm delighted to hear of your department's focus on the scourge of gun violence. And so I look forward to your full endorsement and support for HR-8, the universal background check bill.
Today, said a couple of things that really touched me. You said that you have to set the tone of the department. And you said that the job you are doing now is the honor of a lifetime. All of us here can quite imagine that.
I believe that actually you do, as the head, as the acting A.G., set the tone for the department.
Tell me -- and this is not a negative question. It is just a factual question. How many positions did you interview for with this administration prior to you going to the Department of Justice?
WHITAKER: As we previously explored with one of your colleagues, I had interviewed preliminarily for the position that ultimately Ty Cobb occupied and then Emmet Flood I think currently occupies. And then I interviewed with General Sessions and some of his staff for the chief of staff job.
So, in fact, I had never -- after the election of 2016, I had never intended to come into the administration. But I was -- I was -- I was happy to be asked, and I explored opportunities. And those are the two that I interviewed for.
M. DEAN: And, in the meantime, in your private life, you became a commentator on CNN and other places. And you disparaged the Mueller investigation. Is that true?
WHITAKER: I used my experience as...
M. DEAN: Is it true, yes or no?
WHITAKER: No, I wouldn't characterize it as disparagement, no.
I think I tried to explain to the American people when I was on CNN and other outlets how the process worked, how the process for appointment, how the process for...
M. DEAN: No, I'm not asking you about process. I'm asking you about the subject and the investigation and the validity of the investigation.
We know -- the record is public -- that you did saying very negative things in your private life. And you have said today you're not willing to take those back. So, they stand. Your thoughts on the Mueller investigation are fully public and they stand because you did not take them back today.
How did you learn of the extraordinary honor that was bestowed upon you? How did you learn you got the job?
WHITAKER: You know, I can't remember if it was -- which proceeded which. But I believe I received a phone call from the president of the United States asking me to be the acting attorney general.
M. DEAN: A moment ago, you said you learned by tweet. Like, did I misunderstand you?
WHITAKER: Yes, I think you did.
M. DEAN: OK. So it was -- you learned first by a phone call from the president?
WHITAKER: I believe so. But they were very close in time. And so I actually, as I sit here right now, I can't remember which preceded which.
M. DEAN: OK. And how long was that phone call? Was it just simply, I'm letting you know of this, or was there substantive conversation about your role?
WHITAKER: Well, I'm not going to discuss the private conversations I have had with the president. I think it's important that he is entitled to that confidentiality from a Cabinet secretary, even acting, like I am.
M. DEAN: OK.
WHITAKER: I will tell you that it was not a substantive phone call.
M. DEAN: It was an honorary -- an honor phone call, probably.
And following that and the tweet, when did you next meet with the president about your job? Because it's during this time you have to decide...
WHITAKER: Congresswoman, I don't remember.
M. DEAN: It's during this time, in that month or more, that you have to decide whether or not to recuse, am I right? So, how many times did you meet with the president prior to your decision not to recuse?
WHITAKER: Congresswoman, while I'm not going to discuss any meetings that I have had with the president, nor conversations, I will tell you that I interact with the president on a regular basis, including after I was appointed acting attorney general.
M. DEAN: You said you set the tone for the entire department, and so you had to carefully consider whether or not to recuse yourself from any dealings with Mueller.
WHITAKER: Yes, I spent five weeks. I spent five weeks considering that question.
M. DEAN: Five weeks determining that.
And you got information from two sources that we know of. Career officials at the Justice Department recommended you recuse yourself to avoid the appearance of a conflict or bias. Is that correct? And that was on December 19, to avoid even the appearance of a conflict or bias based on your previous statements. Is that correct? Is that the advice you got?
WHITAKER: Congresswoman, I would just point you to the letter.
M. DEAN: It's a yes or no. Please, my time is running out. And I have waited a long time. Please, it's a yes or no.
WHITAKER: This question is not a yes-or-no question, because it is -- you have to understand how, it was my decision to make. The career officials told me it was my decision to make.
M. DEAN: No, no, I'm talking about your decision. I'm talking about the guidance that you received, not your decision.
WHITAKER: It was not their decision to make.
M. DEAN: No, no, no, I'm asking you factually about the guidance you received.
Career officials told you should recuse to avoid even the appearance of impropriety, of bias. And you set the tone for your department. Am I correct?
WHITAKER: Congresswoman, they told me it was a close call. They said it could go either way. And they said...
M. DEAN: So, to set the tone, you think, on a close call, you go the other way?
WHITAKER: As the attorney general, and not to bind my successors, yes, I believe, on a close call, as the attorney general of the United States, that I made the right decision.
It was my decision to make.
M. DEAN: And yet you had career -- have I lost my time, Mr. Chairman?
NADLER: Get this question out. I will let him answer it. That will be that.
M. DEAN: Would you be able to provide us the written guidance that you got from the career professionals in terms of recusal? They recommended recusal. Would you please provide this committee that written document?
WHITAKER: Congresswoman, that would require me to provide you internal deliberations that are not typically provided in this relationship.
But I can tell you, as we sit here today, I did not receive any written advice from the career ethics officials.
NADLER: Time of the gentlelady had expired.
M. DEAN: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
NADLER: You're welcome.
REP. DEBBIE MUCARSEL-POWELL (D), FLORIDA: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Mr. Whitaker, I want to go back to your time when you worked for the Foundation for Accountability and Civil Trust.
I worked for many, many years for various 501(c)(3)s. So I -- it's very interesting to me, when I look at the board, is this a private or a public foundation.
MUCARSEL-POWELL: FACT, was that -- the 501(c)(3), is it a private or a public?
WHITAKER: It's a 501(c)(3). I don't know.
MUCARSEL-POWELL: No, there are two separate types.
WHITAKER: Congresswoman, I don't have the 990 filings or any of those documents.
MUCARSEL-POWELL: But you worked there from 2014 to 2017.
WHITAKER: I was. I was the...
MUCARSEL-POWELL: And you were the executive director for the foundation.
WHITAKER: Yes, I was.
MUCARSEL-POWELL: But you don't know if it's a private or a public?
WHITAKER: I haven't worked for FACT in 16 months and I -- I -- in my preparation for this oversight hearing ...
MUCARSEL-POWELL: OK, thank -- thank you, Mr. Whitaker.
WHITAKER: ... I didn't review the filings ...
MUCARSEL-POWELL: So were there only -- thank you, Mr. Whitaker, thank you. Were there only three board members in this 501(c)(3)?
WHITAKER: I believe there were -- yes, there were three board members.
MUCARSEL-POWELL: William Gustoff, Neil Corkery, Matthew Whitaker, correct?
MUCARSEL-POWELL: OK. So it's also my understanding that you filed numerous FEC complaints while working there?
WHITAKER: All of our complaints were posted online and ...
MUCARSEL-POWELL: Were they FEC complaints, Mr. Whitaker? You filed FEC complaints.
WHITAKER: We filed -- we filed many different types of complaints that were ...
MUCARSEL-POWELL: Were -- did you file FEC complaints? I'm just -- it's very -- you worked at the Executive Director of this 501(c)(3).
MUCARSEL-POWELL: Did you file FEC complaints? Very, very easy.
WHITAKER: Yes, yes, yes, we filed FEC complaints, in addition to other ...
MUCARSEL-POWELL: And -- and who made the decision to file these complaints?
WHITAKER: I was the Executive Director, I believe I signed all -- if not all of those ...
MUCARSEL-POWELL: Did you make the sole decision to file these complaints or were you directed by ...
WHITAKER: I was not directed, I -- I was the Executive ...
MUCARSEL-POWELL: You did that on your own?
WHITAKER: Yes, we were an independent, non-partisan ...
MUCARSEL-POWELL: 501(c)(3), non-partisan.
WHITAKER: ... ethics watchdog, yes.
MUCARSEL-POWELL: It's a -- it's a non-partisan. Did you file any FEC complaints against any Republicans?
WHITAKER: As I sit here today, I don't recall, but I mean all of our complaints are posted online.
MUCARSEL-POWELL: OK, thank you, thank you, Mr. Whitaker. I would like to ask for unanimous consent to make part of the record the restriction of political campaign intervention by Section 501(c)(3), tax exempt organizations, and it reads under the Internal Revenue code, all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in or intervening in any political campaign on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate or -- for elected public office.
NADLER: Without objection.
MUCARSEL-POWELL: Thank you. I have some other questions here, if you'll give me some time (ph). All this time I'm waiting and I can't find the -- the questions. No, no -- thank you.
This pertains to -- also an issue that's very close and dear to my heart, LGBTQ issues. In October 2017, the Department of Justice withdrew a 2014 memo which stated that the past reading (ph) of the Title VIII's -- Title VII's prohibition on sex discrimination in the workplaces encompasses anti-transgender discrimination. The new memo instructs the Department of Justice attorneys to now argue that federal law does not protect transgender workers from discrimination.
Are you familiar with both memos?
WHITAKER: Yes, I am familiar with those memos that do not extend Title VII to LGBT (ph)...
MUCARSEL-POWELL: Thank you. And at the time of the reversal, were you serving as the chief of staff for Attorney General Sessions? Correct?
WHITAKER: ... I served as chief of staff from October 4th of 2017 until I was appointed acting attorney general in 2018.
MUCARSEL-POWELL: So who ordered the reversal of this policy?
WHITAKER: I'm -- I'm certain it was Attorney General Sessions, who sets the entire policy for the Department of Justice.
MUCARSEL-POWELL: And who drafted the new memo?
WHITAKER: I don't have -- as I sit here today, I -- I -- I don't have any idea. That would be deliberative work done by, I'm sure, many people at the Department of Justice.
MUCARSEL-POWELL: Any outside groups that were involved in the process?
WHITAKER: Not that I'm aware of. But again, I wasn't -- I wasn't directly (inaudible)...
MUCARSEL-POWELL: And do you standing by the Department's decision to reverse its position that Title VII protects transgender people from discrimination?
WHITAKER: ... Congresswoman, I think a plain (ph) reading...
MUCARSEL-POWELL: Please just answer the question.
WHITAKER: ... Congresswoman... MUCARSEL-POWELL: Do you stand by the Department's decision to reverse its position that Title VII protects transgender people from discrimination?
WHITAKER: ... If Congress wants Title VII to extend to transgender people, you can change the law. We cannot read into something that is not in the law.
MUCARSEL-POWELL: OK. So I take that -- that -- yes, OK. Do you believe that members of the LGBT community should not be protected under federal discrimination laws?
WHITAKER: Again, congresswoman, I personally believe that discrimination...
MUCARSEL-POWELL: Mr. Whitaker.
WHITAKER: ... of any kind shouldn't happen. But I will tell you that Title VII...
MUCARSEL-POWELL: Yes or no, please. I don't have much time. Do you believe that members of the LGBT community should not be protected under federal discrimination laws?
WHITAKER: The plain reading...
MUCARSEL-POWELL: Yes or no?
WHITAKER: ... The plain reading of Title VII...
MUCARSEL-POWELL: Yes or no?
WHITAKER: ... does not extend...
MUCARSEL-POWELL: OK. Thank you.
WHITAKER: ... to transgender and you uniquely control what is the law. We merely enforce the law.
MUCARSEL-POWELL: Do I still have time, Mr. Chairman.
NADLER: The gentlelady's time is expired.
ESCOBAR: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Mr. Whitaker, this hearing began this morning at 9:30. I've been waiting almost six hours. It's nearly 3:30 in the afternoon. I've been waiting nearly six hours to ask my questions. I'm going to ask you for a favor. Out of respect for this committee, out of respect for me as a member of Congress, I'm going to ask that you try not to run out the clock, and that you please answer my questions with a yes or a no, and if I have a follow-up that you please answer the follow-up as succinctly as possible.
WHITAKER: Congresswoman, with all due respect, I...
ESCOBAR: And -- that -- I'm sorry, excuse me -- if I could...
WHITAKER: ... I'm going to answer -- with all due respect...
ESCOBAR: ... If I can please...
WHITAKER: ... I'm going to answer your questions...
ESCOBAR: ... get my statement out, sir? I've watched you do that to every member on this committee.
WHITAKER: Because a lot of questions...
ESCOBAR: I'm asking that you please...
WHITAKER: ... don't have yes/no answers.
NADLER: Time belongs to the member.
ESCOBAR: Thank you.
I represent El Paso, Texas. I live on the safe, secure, vibrant U.S.- Mexico border. Unfortunately, my community -- one of tremendous goodwill and generosity -- has been ground zero for many of this administration's cruel, anti-immigrant, anti-American policies including family separation, child detention in tents, the ongoing prevention of asylum-seekers from stepping foot on American soil at our ports of entry, and in December the death of two immigrant children in U.S. custody.
Earlier, you said you believed every life is valuable. And I would hope and assume that that includes the lives of the most vulnerable among us.
There is a new policy that is about to, unfortunately, be rolled out in my community called the Migrant Protection Protocol, which I believe is a misnomer for a dangerous and in some cases deadly, and I believe also illegal policy, that allows our government to return migrants and asylum-seekers back to Mexico while they await their asylum hearing.
Here is my question. Because the Department of Justice oversees the Executive Office for Immigration Review, will the Department of Justice ensure that asylum-seekers have access to counsel in Mexico in order to prepare for their hearings? Yes or no.
WHITAKER: We're going to continue to follow the policies of -- at EOIR that are currently in place.
ESCOBAR: Will you facilitate, assist, help ensure that asylum-seekers have access to legal counsel in Mexico? Yes or no?
WHITAKER: Congresswoman, there is a very well-defined process for asylum-seekers to obtain counsel and we're going to continue to follow that. I -- of course...
ESCOBAR: Mr. Whitaker, even while they're in Mexico?
WHITAKER: ... As -- as -- as the acting attorney general I -- I cannot make an assurance, especially regarding what happens in a foreign country. I mean, I -- I know you understand that, but...
ESCOBAR: And this is part of the reason why this is such a terrible policy.
Another question. About a week after the policy was announced, reports surfaced that immigrant rights advocates and attorneys were denied entry into Mexico. The attorneys said their passports had been flagged and reports also indicated that this was not an issue on the Mexican side, but it was on the U.S. side. Did the Department of Justice have anything to do with flagging these passports?
WHITAKER: Congresswoman, I'm not familiar with the situation you're describing but I'm happy to look into it and get back to you.
ESCOBAR: Thank you.
Another question related to this issue. Does the Department of Justice have an immigrant advocate watch list?
WHITAKER: Congresswoman, I -- I'm not aware of the question you're asking me -- the answer to it. So I'm happy to look into it and get back to you, but I just -- I -- that's...
ESCOBAR: Thank you. I appreciate that.
WHITAKER: ... that's not something that sounds familiar and that I prepared for today.
ESCOBAR: I look forward to the answers to those questions.
Now, switching gears a little bit. At the president's State of the Union Address, he claimed that my community, El Paso, Texas, quote, "Used to have extremely high rates of violent crime, one of the highest in the entire country," end quote. And he claimed that we became one of the safest communities in America because of a wall.
Data from the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting Program shows that El Paso has historically been one of the safest communities in the -- in the nation and that we were such long before a wall was constructed. Do you have any reason to disagree with the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting data?
WHITAKER: Congresswoman, we use the UCR on a regular and ongoing basis to not only know where our crime hotspots are, but to also put our resources at the Department of Justice.
ESCOBAR: Sir, that's not my question. Let me repeat my question.
ESCOBAR: Do you have any reason to disagree with the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting data?
WHITAKER: Congresswoman, I think the UCR...
ESCOBAR: Do you have any reason, sir to disagree with your FBI's data?
WHITAKER: As I sit here today...
ESCOBAR: Yes or no?
WHITAKER: I do not have any reason to disagree with the FBI.
ESCOBAR: OK, great perfect. Thank you very much. Switching gears again, did you ever create...
NADLER: The gentle lady's time has expired, I'll let her finish this one question and...
ESCOBAR: Did you ever create, direct the creation of, see or become aware of the existence of any documents relating to pardons of any individual?
WHITAKER: I am aware of documents relating to pardons of individuals, yes.
NADLER: The gentle lady's time expired, I'm going to ask one question to follow up on the gentle lady's. Sir, since it is -- well, black letter law that someone in the United States may apply for asylum that any person who applies for asylum and states reason (ph) therefore is entitled to have that claim adjudicated. That that person is entitled to legal assistance as that claim is adjudicated.
Doesn't it strike you that a policy that says that people who set foot on American soil and claim asylum will be sent to a foreign country where they may not have access to legal help which they are constitutionally guaranteed for their asylum adjudication may have a constitutional problem?
WHITAKER: Congressman I'm sure you're aware that federal law allows asylum seekers to be returned to a safe third country?
NADLER: I'm not aware though, that it allows people not to -- that allows the government to do something that effectively eliminates their right to council for their asylum claim. This concludes today's hearing. I want to thank all the members who are still here for their patience, and their fortitude. I want to thank Attorney General Whitaker for appearing today.
JACKSON LEE: Mr. Chairman.
NADLER: Ms. Jackson Lee.
JACKSON LEE: I thank you. I'm not asking -- I'm putting these questions on the record. One a...
NADLER: Excuse me, submit them for the record -- don't -- don't...
JACKSON LEE: Yes, I will set them (ph) for record regarding...
NADLER: Without objection the questions are admitted. And before we...
JACKSON LEE: And the article -- two articles, articles -- three articles for the record -- "GQ", "Washington Post", "New York Times" and also an article by Shane Croucher (ph)...
NADLER: Without objection the articles are admitted. Before we adjourn, I want to note for the record that -- Mr. Whitaker, that you owe us responses on a number of issues raised here today.
Responses that we intend to secure, including but not limited to the times and dates you were briefed on the Special Counsel's investigation, your communications with the President after you received those briefings, the basis for your statement that the Special Counsel's investigation is reaching its conclusion -- and whether you told the Special Counsel not to take any specific investigative or prosecutorial steps.
I would also note that your testimony was at best inconsistent, on the topic of your communications with the White House prior to your tenure at the Department. It is not credible that you both interviewed for a job handling the President's response to the Special Counsel's investigation and never conveyed your opinions about that investigation to the White House. We require answers to these questions.
I ask the Department to work with the Committee to provide them as part of that work I fully intend to call you back for an interview under subpoena if necessary, and I expect more fulsome answers at that time -- without objection all members will have five legislative days to submit additional written questions for the witness, or additional materials for the record. And with the thanks of the Chairman, the hearing is adjourned.
BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: All right, that's a wrap, six hours, Matt Whitaker there, the acting A.G. for just a couple more days, in the hot seat. Fireworks much?
Got a lot of great people to talk to.
If you have not been tuned into for the last six hours, we will just get you up to speed, starting with John Dean, former Nixon White House counsel.
And we will get through all the headlines here in just a second. But sort of macro, you were saying to me as we were watching that he was playing a way out of his league, he being Mr. Whitaker.
JOHN DEAN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I felt that the all the way through.
J. DEAN: The first signal was when he was trying to tell the chairman he only had five minutes to ask a question. Chairmen have unlimited -- he could take all day to ask the question if he wanted.
BALDWIN: Let me hit pause on you.
In case you have not seen this moment, guys, let's roll this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
NADLER: Have you ever been asked to approve any request or action to be taken by the special counsel?
WHITAKER: Mr. Chairman, I see that your five minutes is up. And so...
WHITAKER: I'm -- we -- we -- we -- I am -- I'm here voluntarily.
I -- we have agreed to five-minute rounds. And...
NADLER: And I will point out that we didn't enforce the five-minute rule on Attorney -- acting Attorney General Whitaker.
WHITAKER: I understand, Mr. Chairman. I was just saying that might be a good breaking point at that point for you.
The attorney general was in the middle of saying something. Answer the question, please.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
J. DEAN: That's a rookie -- that's a rookie mistake.
BALDWIN: That's a bush league mistake. Yes, go ahead. You were making the point.
Well, why else was he out of his...
J. DEAN: Well, I didn't see him get more comfortable. I saw him get worn down at the end of the thing.
He was totally unresponsive to virtually every question he was asked.
BALDWIN: Inconsistent, is what Chairman Nadler just said.
J. DEAN: Inconsistent on some questions as well. It was not a good performance.
He's -- it's not attorney general-quality performance. It's acting, at best.
BALDWIN: And the theater -- Gloria Borger -- is with me, the politics of it all, depending if it was somebody asking a question with an R by their name vs. a D. It was stunning.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, it was.
I mean, Democrats wanted some answers to questions about very specific questions about whether he had ever talked to the president or anyone in the White House about the Mueller inquiry. He made the case and said that he did not, giving them more information, in fact, than I expected.
But we also know that he interviewed for a job over at the White House, that the responsibility of that job would be to respond to the -- to questions about the Mueller inquiry that eventually went to Ty Cobb.
So it's hard to imagine that he never talked about the Mueller inquiry to anybody at the White House. I don't know. It was -- it was hard to listen to that.
And he was also -- there were some Republicans who wanted to get him to dump on Rod Rosenstein. And he kind of had to walk that fine line. He didn't want to do that. He clearly wanted to please the president. He didn't go out of his way to praise Mueller or say it's not a witch- hunt.
When pressed, he said, yes, he had respect for him and he didn't think there -- he was conflicted. But he had to be pressed on that. He never -- he never offered it.
So it was -- he was trying to navigate very carefully, and he was not always successful.
BALDWIN: So a lot of questions on Mueller. And, again, he kept saying he had not talked to the president of the United States about Mueller, hadn't pulled back funding, hadn't interfered with that investigation.
But, Laura Jarrett, you and Pamela Brown had this great reporting back in December, which I want you to remind everyone of, because there were then several questions moving off of Mueller and going into the SDNY, the federal prosecutors who've been investigating Michael Cohen, subpoenaing Trump Organization, the inaugural committees, we were just reporting recently.
And they wanted to know, have you, Mr. Acting Attorney General, had conversations with the president on anything relating to SDNY?
And with Ted Lieu, he answered, I don't know, nothing that was that was a clear yes or no. And then it was Val Demings, the congresswoman, the Democrat out of Florida, who really came back. And his answer was essentially, again, I will not discuss my conversations with the president, those were private discussions.
But tell me what you were reporting and why his answer was curious.
LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it's interesting how much his answers evolved over the course of the day on Cohen and the Southern District of New York and all of his conversations with the president about all of those issues.
And so, just to take a step back, our reporting back in December was at the president was frustrated, not at Whitaker, but at the prosecutors in Manhattan in the Southern District of New York following the Cohen investigation, because he felt like it was unfair.
He felt like the campaign finance violations may put him in a bad light. Remember, he was Individual 1 in those core papers. And he was sending Whitaker articles, op-eds, suggesting that he had done nothing wrong, this was not illegal, something we have heard reiterated by Rudy Giuliani and the president's legal team.
And so that was sort of the impetus for these calls from Trump to Whitaker expressing his frustration about the situation in Manhattan. Fast-forward to today, when Whitaker is asked about this reporting, and he was first asked by Representative Cicilline, I think, and he was asked whether he -- the president lashed out at Whitaker about it.
And he said, no, he did not. But then he was asked by Representative Lieu. And he said, well, I refer back to my testimony in my opening statement. His opening statement doesn't have anything to do with it, doesn't reference it at all.
All it says is that, I never provided any assurances to the White House about the special counsel probe or any other investigation. That wasn't our reporting.
Then he is asked by Val Demings, the representative, Democrat, there, again about this issue.
And then he says: I'm not going to discuss my conversations with the president about the Southern District of New York.
JARRETT: So, we saw very different answers, depending on who in Congress was asking him the question.