Chairman Nadler Opening Statement for Acting AG Whitaker Hearing
Washington, DC, February 8, 2019
Tags: Government Oversight
Today, House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) delivered the following opening statement, as prepared, during a Department of Justice oversight hearing with Acting Attorney General Matthew G. Whitaker:
"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 US Attorney’s Offices whose commitment to the rule of law protects our democracy.
"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 20, in a letter from the Department meant to justify some of the decisions we will examine here today, Congress learned the following:
"In a meeting with the Acting Attorney General’s senior staff . . . ethics officials concluded . . . that if a recommendation were 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.
"In other words, even though you apparently did not ask for their advice on this topic, these career officials went out of their way to tell you that your 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 prior.
"Their advice to you was an act of bravery. It is worthy of the best tradition of independence and integrity at the Department of Justice.
"But in my view your conduct, Mr. Whitaker—including your decision to ignore important ethics advice when you became Acting Attorney General, no matter the consequences—your conduct, sir, 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. The organization has been described by Republicans as “a chop shop for fake ethics complaints” 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.
"Those media appearances have become the cause of much concern. One month before you joined the Administration, you wrote a column titled “Mueller’s Investigation of Trump is Going Too Far.” You stated that the investigation was “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 “grinds to almost a halt.”
"Mr. Whitaker, like everyone else at the Department of Justice, you are entitled to your political opinions. This Committee should not be in the business of vilifying government personnel for their private views, particularly when the Department takes steps to mitigate even the appearance of a conflict of interest in an ongoing investigation.
"But when career officials at the Department recommended that you take steps to mitigate your apparent conflicts of interest, Mr. Whitaker—when they told you that your public criticism of the Special Counsel was 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 that 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 on the substance of the Special Counsel’s investigation at a January 29 press conference? Is it true that you have been “fully briefed” on the investigation, and that the Special Counsel’s work is “close to being completed?”
"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, Mr. Whitaker, we have taken certain steps to ensure your cooperation with Members on both sides of the aisle.
"First, although I am pleased that 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, Mr. Whitaker, I gave you no assurances until after you had agreed to appear today.
"Given our concerns about your attendance until late last night, our taking steps to ensure your appearance seems perfectly appropriate. Now that you are here and prepared to testify, I agree there is 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 “will continue the longstanding Executive Branch policy and practice of not disclosing information that may be subject to executive privilege.”
"In other words, you reserve the right to refuse to answer the question forever. That’s not how it works, Mr. Whitaker.
"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 that, 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 you 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 long 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, Mr. Whitaker. 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 to you. We have provided our Republican colleagues with a meaningful opportunity to weigh in on the process. We have nothing to hide from you. 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 the 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.