Matthew Whitaker Plays to an Audience of One

Throughout a contentious oversight hearing, the acting attorney general seemed to be auditioning for his next job in the Trump administration.

Andrew Harnik / Associated Press

It took about five minutes of questioning for the acting attorney general to provoke gasps and jeers in the congressional hearing room. “Your five minutes is up,” Matthew Whitaker, an ex–U.S. attorney turned toilet salesman, told the House Judiciary Committee’s Democratic chairman, Jerry Nadler. Nadler cracked a smile, but from that point on, the rules of engagement seemed clear: Whitaker, with just days remaining in his legally dubious role as the interim head of the Justice Department, appeared to be playing to an audience of one.

President Donald Trump appointed Whitaker late last year to replace Jeff Sessions, whose recusal from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation in early 2017 was viewed by the president as an unforgivable betrayal. But Whitaker was not the obvious replacement—he served for a few years as a U.S. attorney in Iowa, but spent far longer in private practice and partisan politics. He also served as a paid advisory-board member of a fraudulent invention-promotion firm. Later, he was the executive director of a conservative nonprofit funded by dark money. And then came his stint as a CNN commentator in 2017, during which he blasted Mueller and opined that his probe had “gone too far.” All of this received heavy scrutiny as the constitutional basis of his appointment was challenged in the courts.

But Friday marked his first oversight hearing on Capitol Hill.

“I’m confused, I really am,” Democratic Representative Hakeem Jeffries told Whitaker at one point. “We’re all trying figure out: Who are you, where did you come from, and how the heck did you become the head of the Department of Justice?”

Despite the lingering questions about his resume and suspicions about why he was appointed over Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who would have been Sessions’s natural replacement, Whitaker presented himself to Nadler, a 13-term congressman, with the same aloofness and disdain for tradition that often seems typical of the Trump White House. And that may have been on purpose. Whitaker, whose tenure ends when Bill Barr is confirmed as attorney general next week, will need a new job. He has reportedly been considered for the role of Trump’s chief of staff. And though he testified under oath that he had “not interfered in any way with the special counsel’s investigation,” he repeatedly declined to contradict Trump’s claims that Mueller is on a “witch hunt.”

Chuck Rosenberg, a former senior Justice Department official who resigned in 2017, said it would have been “easy” for Whitaker to say that Mueller’s investigation is legitimate, as Barr did during his recent confirmation hearings. “I don’t know how somebody could be that cowardly,” he added. But doing so would have undermined what is arguably his boss’s most important talking point—and that would not have been a good move for Whitaker if he was, in fact, auditioning for his next position.

Instead, Whitaker had a boilerplate response prepared for the myriad questions posed by Democrats about the Mueller probe: “It would be inappropriate for me to talk about an ongoing investigation,” he said. Democrats, though, found that disingenuous—Whitaker had discussed the probe publicly earlier this month, going as far as to speculate that it would be wrapping up soon. During Friday’s highly contentious oversight hearing, he entertained a Republican’s inquiry about the way Trump’s longtime confidant Roger Stone had been arrested last month in Florida by the FBI—and why a reporter was staked out there in advance of the raid. “I share your concern with the possibility that a media outlet was tipped off to Mr. Stone’s either indictments or arrest before it was made,” Whitaker told Representative Doug Collins, acknowledging later that he had no inside information to suggest that the media outlet, CNN, had advance word of Stone’s arrest.

Trump has yet to comment on Whitaker’s performance. But there seemed to be little for him to complain about. Whitaker told lawmakers that despite a CNN report to the contrary, Trump had not “lashed out” about the investigation into his longtime personal lawyer Michael Cohen. And in contrast to his testimony that he had not discussed the Mueller investigation with Trump, Whitaker dodged questions about whether he had discussed the Cohen probe with the president. “As I’ve mentioned several times today, I’m not going to discuss my private conversations with the president,” he told Democratic Representative Val Demings.

The acting attorney general’s obfuscation when asked simple yes-or-no questions seemed reminiscent of Trump’s own tendency to filibuster his way out of uncomfortable confrontations. “You have not yet appeared for an oversight hearing: Yes or no?” Democratic Representative Sheila Jackson Lee asked Whitaker. “I am the acting attorney general of the United States,” Whitaker responded evasively. Pressed repeatedly by Lee to answer the question, Whitaker said that he wasn’t sure how much time she had left. “Mr. Attorney General, we’re not joking here,” she said. “And your humor is not acceptable. Now, you’re here because we have a constitutional duty to ask questions, and the Congress has a right to establish government rules. The rules are that you are here.”

Frank Figliuzzi, the former assistant director for counterintelligence at the FBI, seemed shocked by Whitaker’s demeanor: “I am not kidding when I say I have interviewed terrorists who were more cooperative and respectful than Matt Whitaker was today,” Figliuzzi told MSNBC. “The attorney general’s role is America’s lawyer; we are his client.”

Unfortunately, at Friday’s hearing, Figliuzzi said, “he treated us with utter disdain.”