Acting Attorney General Balks at Testifying Under Subpoena Threat

February 7, 2019 Updated: February 7, 2019

WASHINGTON–Democrats on the U.S. House Judiciary Committee prepared a subpoena on Feb. 7 to compel acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker to testify on Feb. 8, prompting Whitaker to say he would not appear unless the subpoena threat was lifted.

The committee’s Democrats want to question Whitaker about his oversight of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election and his communications with the White House related to the probe and the firing of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

But Whitaker, whom President Donald Trump chose to head the Justice Department after firing Sessions in November, said the possibility of a subpoena showed the committee’s “true intention is … create a public spectacle.”

Shortly before Whitaker’s threat to withdraw from the hearing, the House Judiciary Committee had voted 23–13 along party lines to have a subpoena ready in case Whitaker failed to show up or refused to answer questions.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler said the vote only authorized a subpoena, but that one would not be issued as long as Whitaker appeared at the hearing and cooperated.

A subpoena would compel Whitaker to testify. If he still declined, Democrats could take steps to have him held in contempt of Congress.

Whitaker, in a statement, said he would show up only if Democrats committed not to issue a subpoena.

A Justice Department spokeswoman said Whitaker had been preparing for the hearing since December, a process that has involved mock hearings and briefings by dozens of staffers in every major component of the department.

Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd, in a letter to Nadler, said Whitaker is prepared to discuss topics if the subpoena threat is removed, including his decision not to recuse himself from the Russia probe.

Republicans blasted Democrats for hanging the possibility of a subpoena over Whitaker’s head after he voluntarily agreed to appear.

Doug Collins, the most senior Republican on the Judiciary Committee, accused Democrats of “political theater” and later said they had clearly “overplayed their hand” by threatening to subpoena a cooperating witness.

Trump, when asked on Thursday about the dispute between Nadler and Whitaker, said of Whitaker: “He’s an outstanding person. I would say, if he did testify, he’d do very well. He’s an outstanding person. A very, very fine man.”

By Sarah Lynch