Top Democrat: Former acting attorney general 'did not deny' talking to Trump about Cohen
The top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee said Wednesday that former acting attorney general Matthew Whitaker "did not deny" that President Donald Trump "called him to discuss the case" against his former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen, as well as personnel decisions regarding the personnel at the federal prosecutor's office bringing the case against him.
Speaking to reporters after a two-hour meeting with Whitaker, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., presented Whitaker's closed-door comments as a contradiction with his public testimony from February, during which Whitaker said Trump never expressed his dissatisfaction with Cohen for pleading guilty to various financial crimes and lying to Congress. When asked at that hearing whether he had ever discussed the Cohen case with Trump, Whitaker refused to answer the question.
"Unlike in the hearing room, Mr. Whitaker did not deny that the president called him to discuss the Michael Cohen case and personnel decisions in the Southern District," Nadler said, referring to the Southern District of New York, which brought the case against Cohen.
But Rep. Douglas Collins, R-Ga., who was also present for the interview, strongly disagreed with Nadler, calling it an "interpretation" — and insisting that Whitaker "said he did not talk with the president about Mr. Cohen at all, and had no conversations with the Southern District of New York."
The dispute is the latest controversy to surround Whitaker's statements, as lawmakers argue along partisan lines about whether Whitaker misled Congress about his brief tenure as acting attorney general and his contacts with the president while overseeing Special Counsel Robert Mueller's probe.
According to Nadler, Whitaker did not refute the assertion that he was "directly involved in conversations about whether to fire one or more U.S. attorneys." Nadler also said that Whitaker did not deny having been "involved in conversations about the scope" of the recusal of the SDNY's lead prosecutor, U.S. attorney Geoffrey Berman, from Cohen's case — and whether the prosecutors "went too far in pursuing the campaign finance case in which Trump is Individual-1."
But Collins countered that such conversations were internal discussions that Whitaker had with his own staff, in the course of carrying out his duties as acting attorney general.
"To imply that there's anything nefarious there is a way overreach of anything that was discussed," Collins said. "The only thing that Mr. Whitaker said about that was he had discussions with his personal staff ... he never had any conversations with the Southern District of New York about any case while he was acting attorney general."
When Nadler was pressed to explain what Whitaker's purported series of non-denials meant, he simply stated that "he would not say no." He pledged also to "analyze the new revelations and see where they lead."
Whitaker has been a lightning rod for partisan infighting since his appointment as acting attorney general, to take over from former attorney general Jeff Sessions shortly after the midterm elections last year. His meeting with Nadler and Collins comes slightly more than a month after he testified in public before the House Judiciary Committee, pushing back against Democrats' concerns that he could have used his position overseeing the Mueller probe to benefit Trump's position.
Republicans objected to that hearing at the time as pointless, as it took place just days before the Senate confirmed William Barr to serve as attorney general.
"We thought the hearing shouldn't have happened, so if you want to bring him back in then fine," Collins said Wednesday just before the meeting with Whitaker began. "It's the chairman's meeting, so I'm just going to sit there and listen and see what he says."
Nadler had promised to follow up with Whitaker over purported omissions during his testimony, during which Whitaker either refused to detail the substance of conversations he had with Trump or gave answers that, in Nadler's estimation, strained credulity.
Democrats suspected Whitaker's assertion then that he never discussed his views regarding Mueller's probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election. Whitaker was interviewing to become White House counsel and had voiced his negative opinions about Mueller's probe as a television pundit before Trump recommended him to be then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions' chief of staff.
When Trump named Whitaker acting attorney general, temporarily replacing Sessions, Democrats argued that those opinions made Whitaker unfit to oversee Mueller's probe, questioning whether he would use his position to limit the inquiry or feed valuable information about the investigation to Trump and his lawyer. Whitaker has firmly denied doing anything of the kind.
Nadler's claim that Whitaker didn't deny speaking with Trump about Cohen's case and personnel decisions at SDNY now raises new questions about his testimony. It is was not immediately clear, however, whether Wednesday's meeting is the precursor to another public hearing with the former acting attorney general, or simply an effort to wrap up lingering suspicions about the completeness of Whitaker's testimony as the panel prepares to receive Mueller's final report.
Whitaker did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
House Democrats are bracing for a potential fight with Barr to get the full original report when Mueller completes it, and with the Justice Department to procure the investigative materials underlying the special counsel's investigation. The House is expected to vote later this week on a resolution calling on Barr to release the full report to the public, minus any classified portions, and give lawmakers full access to its unredacted contents.
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