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INSIDE POLITICS

Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker Testifies. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired February 8, 2019 - 12:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[12:30:00] REP. JIM JORDAN (R), OHIO: Are there any other modifications, any other changes to the parameters of an investigation into the President of the United States?

REP. JERROLD NADLER (D), CHAIRMAN, JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: The Congressman's time has expired. The witness may answer the question.

MATT WHITAKER, ACTING ATTORNEY: Congressman, just to be clear, the Special Counsel understands the scope of its investigation and is complying with all the regulations and orders related to that.

NADLER: Thank you. Mr. Deutch.

REP. TED DEUTCH (D), FLORIDA: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

General Whitaker, you and I both lawyers by first day of Crim Law and my professor came in and said, if someone ask you yes or no question, don't just repeat the question, answer yes or no, otherwise during your career people will think you're not a good lawyer. We know you're a good lawyer. Let's heed that advice going forward.

WHITAKER: We did not go to the same law school

DEUTCH: In November 2018 -- we didn't. The advice is good nonetheless. In November 2018, Chris Wallace asked the President a question that -- he said, you know, before you appointed him that he, meaning you had the record that was so critical of Robert Mueller, and the President said, "I didn't know that. I didn't know he took views on the Mueller investigation."

Do you believe President Trump was telling the truth when he said that he just did not know that you were critical of Mueller before the appointment?

WHITAKER: Congressman the --

DEUTCH: I got to go back. Right now, I understand how it all worked. I'm just asking you, do you believe the President was telling the truth when he said he did not know that you had been critical of Robert Mueller before making your appointment?

WHITAKER: Congressman, I have no reason to believe when I sit here today. The President wasn't say what he believed.

DEUTCH: Who did you interview with for the Chief of Staff job? Not for this job. For chief staff job?

WHITAKER: It was General Sessions' decision to make. I interviewed with him and he offered me the job.

DEUTCH: And before you got the job, did you ever -- before you took this job, did you ever speak with the President about the Mueller probe from May 17, 2017 to September 22nd, 2017?

WHITAKER: Are you saying about before I was actually the Chief of Staff?

DEUTCH: I'm saying between May 17, 2017 --

WHITAKER: Congressman, I had never met the President until after I joined the Department of Justice October 2017.

DEUTCH: So have you -- let me ask another question. You didn't communicate with him -- did you communicate with anyone at the White House about the Special Counsel investigation before September 22nd, 2018?

WHITAKER: I assume you're excluding my appearances on CNN. Because I don't know who at the White House was watching my appearances.

DEUTCH: Have you talked to anybody at the White House, I mean, you've told me that the President wasn't watching those, otherwise he would have been aware your position. So, I assume the President wasn't watching. Did you talk about those appearances with anyone at the White House?

WHITAKER: I did not talk about my appearances on CNN.

DEUTCH: Did you talk about your views of the Mueller investigation with anyone at the White House?

WHITAKER: I did not talk about my views of the Mueller investigation with any of the White House in this time period, essentially May of 2017 until I joined the Department of Justice in October of 2017.

DEUTCH: Right. And when you -- throughout that process, did you ever communicate with -- here's the question. By my count, you made six comments in op-eds, talk radio or in cable news critical of the Special Counsel between the time you interviewed in June 2017 and the time you are hired as Chief of Staff to the Attorney General.

Did you ever use any intermediaries, did you have anyone -- since the President didn't know, did you have anyone communicate with the White House or anyone at the White House, either staff members, friends or others, to let them know exactly where you stood as expressed in at least those six public statements?

WHITAKER: Congressman, I had at the time you described, May of 17 until I joined the Department on October 4th of 2017. I didn't have a relationship with the White House.

DEUTCH: Did you talk to any White House personnel before you were hired, anyone at the White House?

WHITAKER: Congressman, I --

DEUTCH: That's an easy one. Did you talk to anyone at the White House? It's a yes or no?

WHITAKER: Congressman, I had previously been at the White House when I was a private citizen to talk about a different position.

DEUTCH: No, I understand. But did you talk to anyone at the White House about your views on Mueller? Any personnel at the White House at all before you assumed the position?

WHITAKER: In May of --

DEUTCH: Let me just go forward. Because here's the issue, when you became the attorney general, since becoming the attorney general, you said that you have been briefed on the Special Counsel. Did you use anyone else to have communications -- did you do anything to make sure that the White House might have learned some of what you learned in those briefings? Could it be that someone else on your staff might have spoken to someone at the White House since you told us you didn't?

WHITAKER: Congressman, I'm not aware of that happening.

DEUTCH: Who else, how many people were in those briefings with you when you were briefed about the Mueller investigation?

WHITAKER: Congressman, I'm not going to go into specifics of the briefing but it was a very limited group. There was only one member of my staff who was present with me.

[12:35:02] DEUTCH: And have there been, have you ever attempted to use any intermediaries to Trump to get information to the President or others on his staff?

WHITAKER: No, I have not attempted to use any intermediaries to get information to the President or his staff.

DEUTCH: So I'll close Mr. Chairman just by saying, this is going to be along hearing we're going to go on for a while. The concern that we have, Mr. Whitaker, is that there was no Senate confirmation here. We're not the Senate.

But the administration justified their decision in picking you under the Vacancies Reform Act. There was a law on the books for the Attorney General's succession and the authority to oversee the Special Counsel's work. It goes from one Senate confirmation to another from the A.G., Deputy A.G., Associated Attorney A.G., Solicitor General, Assistant Attorney General, the Attorney General in-charge of the Office of Legal Counsel, Assistant A.G. for National Security, Assistant A.G. in charge of the Criminal Division and on and on and on.

None of them. None of them are the Chief of Staff to the Attorney General. I think what we're trying to figure out is why is it exactly that (INAUDIBLE) chose to go beyond the statute and choose you? And I hope over the bounce of this hearing that will become clear. I yield back, Mr. Chairman.

WHITAKER: Thank you, Congressman. I believe the President chose me to be the acting attorney general for a couple reasons. First, I had served previously in the department as the United States attorney, which is a very important position as Mr. Ratcliffe previously stated in the administration justice.

And for 13 months, I was the chief of staff for Attorney General Sessions. And I had done the full year with him side by side. Obviously, he made the decisions but I gave him advice and counsel, and I was aware of everything that was going on at the Department of Justice that I obviously -- General Sessions wasn't recused from.

And so, I think the President was comfortable that to continue the momentum at the Department of Justice we had established in addressing these important priority issues, like reducing violent crime, combating the opioid crisis and others that the President felt I was best positioned to do the duties of Attorney General.

NADLER: Biggs.

REP. ANDY BIGGS (R), ARIZONA: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Now, I'll just say to Mr. Whitaker my question is normally -- in a normal oversight committee would be vastly different than the direction I'm going to go because we've kind of wandered into this other stream over here.

So, I'm going to ask you some questions. The longstanding constitutionally based Department of Justice policy holds that a sitting President cannot be indicted. Is that and that's based on the last review which happened during the Clinton administration. Is that still in effect or has it changed?

WHITAKER: That is still the policy of the Department of Justice.

BIGGS: Have you spoken to Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein about his statements on invoking the 25th Amendment in wire tapping President Trump?

WHITAKER: I have seen the statements by Deputy Rosenstein that he made to the press regarding those statements and I have no reason to believe that he did not -- that those statements, you know, were consistent with what he believed at the time.

BIGGS: OK, I'm not sure I understood that. You said no reason to believe that they were not consistent, so there are a couple negatives there. Do you believe they were consistent to what he believed at the time?

WHITAKER: I do. I believe what Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein said to the press when it was first reported about his discussion --

BIGGS: Oh, you're talking about his comments not -- his comments to the press, not the ones about him wearing a wire?

WHITAKER: I'm talking about Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein's comments to the press after it was reported that he had considered the wire and invoking the 25th amendment.

BIGGS: I don't mean to interrupt, that he has responses in it. You think you're consistent. So did you talk to him about this issue at all?

WHITAKER: Again, I'm not here to talk about the internal discussions that I had --

BIGGS: This is a critical issue. With all due respect, this is not an ongoing -- this has nothing to do with an ongoing investigation. What has got to do with is Mr. Rosenstein in his role as an unbiased overseer of the Mueller investigation. So, it's not directly dealing with the investigation, it deals with his capacity to be unbiased. So, I'm not asking whether -- I'm not trying to get into the substance or even the periphery. I want to know, though, did you have a conversation with Mr. Rosenstein about his comments as reported?

WHITAKER: Congressman, this is an important question to you, but I'm not going to answer my conversations with Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein. I believe that they're deliberative. Obviously, I'm exercising the full --

BIGGS: OK, so I get it.

WHITAKER: -- responsibilities of the acting attorney general position.

BIGGS: I appreciate that. I appreciate. I know that answers important to you. I know that's important to you, but you're answering in a way that we as the American people can understand, that's important to us.

So, let's get to June 21st, 2017 where you said the truth is there was no collusion with the Russians and the Trump campaign. There was interference by the Russians into the election that there was not collision with the campaign. That's where the left seems to be combining these two issues. The last thing they want right now is the truth to come out.

[12:40:12] And the fact that there's not a single piece of evidence that demonstrates that the Trump campaign had any illegal or even improper relationships with the Russians. Is that simple. Do you still adhere to that statement? Is that still true in your mind today?

WHITAKER: Congressman, as I have mentioned before the previous questioning about my statements as a private citizen before I joined the Department of Justice, those were made based on publicly available information and I had no inside information. I did not know the details of the investigation. I obviously know the traditions of the Department of Justice, the rules and regulations and I follow those as I exercise my duties as acting attorney general. BIGGS: I remember the answers that gave up to other similar question

but not that question here. And that's not what I'm asking is. What I'm asking is, as we sit here today a year and a half later, has your opinion changed from what you stated June 21st, 2017? Has it changed? That's a simple question, that's not hard.

WHITAKER: Congressman, the Special Counsel's investigation is an ongoing investigation and I'm not going to characterize that investigation or give you my opinion of that investigation as I sit here today.

BIGGS: So, the scope memo indicates that the scope of the Mueller investigation with any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump, and two, any matters that arose or may arise directly from that investigation, has that scope been expanded in any way?

WHITAKER: Congressman, as I was discussing with Representative Jordan, I am not going to talk about the scope of the Special Counsel's investigation.

BIGGS: OK. All right, then I'll go forward and say the indictments and the relation with scope 1, Papadopoulos' false statements occurring after Mueller was appointed. Manafort's facts unrelated to the election campaign Gates, x, unrelated to the election of the campaign. Flynn, false statement about post-election conversations. Richard Pinedo, unrelated to campaign or election. Cohen, referred by Mueller to Southern District New York because it was out of his scope. Sam Patten, not related to the 2016 election or campaign start false statements occurring after Mueller was appointed not one indictment alleged in an illegal relationship between the member of the Trump campaign and Russia.

And that's consistently what we seen so far. And thank you, Mr. Chairman.

NADLER: The gentleman's time has expired. Miss Bass.

REP. KAREN BASS (D), CALIFORNIA: Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Mr. Acting A.G., I actually wanted to ask you some questions regarding what you did prior to being acting A.G. It's my understanding that before you moved to the Department of Justice that you were the executive director of the Foundation for Accountability and Civic and Trust?

REP. DOUG COLLINS (R), RANKING MEMBER, JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: Ms. Chairman -- Ms. Chair I have a point of order. Mr. Chairman.

BASS: A could set the fact--

COLLIN: Ms. Chairman, I have a point of order.

BASS: -- that Conservative Ethics watching or he may pull you --

COLLIN: I have a point of order. BASS: -- or he made full use of the opportunity to call for investigations of multiple Democrats.

NADLER: Gentleman will state his point of order -- gentlelady was suspend. The gentleman will state his point of order.

COLIINS: My point of order by the very statement from the gentlelady is not outside the scope of an oversight investigative hearing of the Department of Justice.

BASS: It is not. You need to let me finish my question and you'll see.

NADLER: That is not -- gentlelady will suspend. That is not a valid point of order. The gentlelady will continue.

BASS: Thank you.

COLLINS: Ms. Chairman, I like the point of order pursuant down the House rules that the question is outside the scope --

NADLER: The gentlelady has the floor.

COLLINS: Are you just going to overrun a point of order? I made my point of order.

(CROSSTALK)

NADLER: The gentlelady will suspend. I ruled that it was not a valid point of order and the gentlelady has the floor. The gentlelady will continue.

BASS: Thank you.

COLLINS: I was not through with my point of order.

NADLER: Gentlelady will continue.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Fill the ruling of the chair.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Move to table.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I move to table.

NADLER: Motion to table the appeal of the ruling of the Chair is before the committee. Motion to table is not debatable. The clerk will call the roll. One moment while we set up the clerk.

(INAUDIBLE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. Chairman, may I make a unanimous consent request while we're waiting for this vote?

(INAUDIBLE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK. [12:45:05] NADLER: Karen, when is the bias of a witness not relevant to?

(INAUDIBLE)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mr. Chairman.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Aye.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mr. Chairman votes aye. Miss Lofgren? Ms. Jackson Lee?

REP. SHEILA JACKSON LEE (D), TEXAS: Aye.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Ms. Jackson Lee votes aye. Mr. Cohen.

REP. STEVE COHEN (D), TENNESSEE: Aye.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mr. Cohen votes aye. Mr. Johnson? Mr. Deutsch? Mr. Deutsch votes aye. Miss Bass? Miss Bass votes aye. Mr. Richmond?

REP. CEDRIC RICHMOND (D), LOUISIANA: Aye.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mr. Richmond votes aye. Mr. Jeffrey --

JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: (INAUDIBLE) in Washington, you're watching the House Judiciary Committee take a first vote on the procedural dispute between the Democrats and the Republicans. In the witness chair, the acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker.

Democratic member of the committee was about to ask Whitaker about prior activities with organizations before he joined then Justice Department. Republicans trying to argue that should be outside the scope of today's committee hearing, A, that is the question but, B, it is part of the broader contention between the Democratic and Republicans. We're watching the roll call vote. The question in Mr. Whitaker will continue after this vote.

Democrats have the votes on the committee to win. The procedures requires them to take this vote which is just, it says almost nothing to this vote has very little to do with the substance at hand and has everything to do with the partisanship at hand.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESSPONDENT: Absolutely. And we've been remarking on this as we've been watching that the one thing that has not changed with the new Congress is the divisiveness. And I guess in one way you would expect it because Republicans are nervous about Democrats being in charge, but Democrats are also, you know, many of them are being as partisan as they were in the minority.

We're not getting a whole lot new that we didn't know before, but we are getting some things new that we didn't know before starting earlier in the day, just even something basic like, he said and he said this several times, that he did not deny any funds to Robert Mueller. That's something that we didn't know yet only because we didn't -- or at least officially, only because we didn't have the opportunity to hear from him under oath as we are today.

KING: And he said he hasn't denied any funds to Mr. Mueller. He said he is no, no way interfered with Mr. Mueller. He said he has not communicated to the President or any officials at the White House about things he has learned about the Mueller investigation.

So if you want to bottle all that up, the Democrats are suspicious. They want to know why the President picked the Chief of Staff to Jeff Sessions to replace Jeff Sessions when he fired him. They're suspicious because of the President's constant attacks on Jeff Sessions and the Justice Department and the investigation, but anyone at the table, please jump in as -- the roll call is just about done.

He has said nothing to give the Democrats anything to advance their suspicions of him, if you will, correct?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's absolutely right. That doesn't mean that even him saying there clearly in the hearing that he has not talked to the President about the Mueller probe is allaying those suspicions.

What I am surprised hasn't been brought up yet is the SDNY probe and I know we're listening closer to see if they're back in session but --

KING: So that part has been interesting. Let's get back to the hearing. Karen Bass, Democratic California now, asking her questions.

BASS: -- director of the Foundation and Civic Trust, you recommended that FACT called for Ethics investigations into are filed complaints about the following Democratic politicians, officials and organizations. The Democratic National Committee, Hilary Clinton, John Cherry, Speaker Pelosi, Representative Ami Bera, Hoffmann, Lewis. In fact, the organization actually called for an investigation into a member or this committee, Representative Hank Johnson.

So, there's a total of about 46 individuals or organizations that over the time period when you were the executive director of FACT, that you called for either Ethics investigations or filed complaints.

So since you have joined the A.G.'s Office, I want to know whether or not any investigations have been initiated into those people -- and just answer that, yes or no? Have there been investigations initiated into the people that you suggested be investigated during the time you were the E.D. of FACT?

WHITAKER: Congresswoman, I was the executive director of the Foundation for Accountability of Civic Trust. We were an independent non-partisan ethics watchdog group. We did file ethics complaints against members of both parties.

BASS: You filed ethics complaints against Republicans? Can you tell me which Republicans you filed ethics complaints against?

WHITAKER: All of -- again, you know, I'm here for an oversight hearing --

BASS: Yes, you are.

[12:50:00] And so my questions are leading to that. So can you answer that? Which Republicans did you filed investigation or as per at this investigations of?

WHITAKER: The nice thing about being an ethics watchdog group is that FACT, filed all of its complaints on its website and I would refer you there.

BASS: I don't have time to look into the website. I'm asking you a question now, you were the executive director. Which Republicans did you file?

WHITAKER: Congresswoman, again, I as I sit here today, all I can do is refer you the website --

BASS: OK, so let me just ask this. Since you've been in the DOJ, have any complaints been initiated against the 46 Democrats, either individuals or organizations in the time that you've been the acting A.G.?

WHITAKER: Congresswoman, as I sit here today, I am not aware of any, but obviously if I had recommended as the executive director of FACT that someone be investigated, I would -- and it was in my recommendation was adopted by the Department of Justice, I'm certain I couldn't be involved in that investigation.

BASS: You're certain, but you don't know whether you -- did you recuse yourself of any?

WHITAKER: You know, recusal of decision. I think it's important for everyone to understand is recusal decisions are made based on a matter.

BASS: Let me move on. I want to ask you questions about ethics guidance that you received in December. Did they recommend that you recuse yourself from any involvement in the criminal investigation into the World Patent Marketing, the fraudulent patent promotion scam to which you still owe almost $10,000 to the court? Did they provide an ethics opinion or did you not seek one, related to the World Patent Marketing matter?

WHITAKER: Just to be clear Congresswoman, what do you mean by, they? Do you mean the ethics officials?

WHITAKER: I'm asking you. What guidance did they recommend that you recuse yourself? So that's a question to you. Did they recommend that you recuse yourself from any involvement in the criminal investigation into the World Patent Marketing?

WHITAKER: I am recused from the investigation into that company.

BASS: What about any matter involving Hillary Clinton? It's been well documented of your public calls or renewed investigations into matters related to Mrs. Clinton? WHITAKER: Again the -- any investigations into former Secretary Clinton, if they're open -- confirmation or denial of a recusal would suggest that there is or is not an investigation regarding that person.

BASS: You know, I actually believe I have more time on the clock since I was interrupted.

NADLER: And we inform do we pause the time.

BASS: OK. Go ahead. Continue.

WHITAKER: What's I'm saying is your inquiry about whether or not I'm recused from any matter concerning former Secretary Clinton would, by its very nature, suggest that there is open matter regarding Secretary Clinton. Any recusal decision that I would make would be based on what the matter was and it would go through the exact same analysis that I went through in the case of the Special Counsel's investigation.

BASS: Thank you.

NADLER: At the request of a number of people, the committee will stand in recess for five minutes.

[12:53:20]

KING: A quick recess. You've been watching the House Judiciary committee. Right there center of your screen is Matthew Whitaker. He's the acting Attorney General.

He is being grilled mostly by the Democrats, Republicans objecting to the tone of the Democratic questioning and trying to move the conversations on. So there's a brief recess.

With me here on studio to share their insights on today's contentious proceedings, CNN's Dana Bash, Catherine Lucy with the Associated Press, former Federal Prosecutor Shan Wu and CNN's Pamela Brown.

The partisanship here, at times this was as much an exhibit for tournament that's as it was a questioning of Matthew Whitaker. But the key points being, the Democrats suspicious of Matthew Whitaker thinking the President wanted to put somebody politically loyal to him. When he fired Jeff Sessions at the Justice Department but Whitaker has -- he's prickly at times. He's reluctant to answer the Democratic questions at times. He's clearly much more comfortable taking to the Republicans, so you do see the partisan nature of this.

But on the substance he has said he has not talked to the President about the investigation, has not shared updates on the investigation with anybody at the White House, has not interfered with Robert Mueller, has not cut off any funding to Robert Mueller.

Is there any -- what else has come out of this of note or interest or, let me start with the attorney. If you've been listening to this and your turn was next, what would your questions be? SHAN WU, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I would push him on the details of what briefings he has or hasn't had. If he tries to retreat on into executive privilege or legal privilege, that doesn't cover who, what and when. Only the content of the substance of his communications. So I think they could find out a lot about when those dates were, who he actually talked to. And he's really not pressed on that yet.

[12:55:01] And I think early in the hearing he appeared very uncomfortable, looked very nervous, and that kind of witness I think would be pretty vulnerable. But as time has going on, I think he's gotten a little bit more solid.

KING: And you made critical point where he had a brief roll call vote earlier. But they've asked him about Robert Mueller and his handling of the Mueller investigation. They have not pressed him on Southern District of New York, the Michael Cohen investigation and the other -- the Trump Tower, the Trump Organization subpoena has going to come there and to some people believed and potentially the most significant investigation.

BROWN: That's right we know that the President has been focused on that and is concerned about the SDNY investigation and our reporting is that Whitaker did talk to the President. The President had vented to him, lashed out after the charges against Michael Cohen for the hush money scheme as well as lying to Congress.

And we are told that the President felt like he was being treated unfairly, because as you recall he was listed as individual 1 in the court documents. And so the President, according to our reporting, did speak to Whitaker about this.

So, I'm a little bit surprised that the particularly the Democrats haven't brought up the SDNY probe which is separate from the Mueller probe. But made no mistake, Whitaker clearly had been prepping for this. As you can see he is sticking to the script from his prep sessions and really not going beyond.

I mean, he -- I think he realized a couple weeks ago at the press conference where he said the Mueller probe was nearing its end and how much attention that got that he really learned his lesson from that. But I was speaking to someone close to Whitaker. He was in DOJ. He said, look, the strategy here is for him to let the Democrats have it. Walk out as a conservative hero.

CATHERINE LUCEY, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, ASSOCIATED PRESS: That and if we're wrapping up. I think Whitaker is sticking to his talking went. I also think as the President complains that Democrats don't want to work and try to set a ton of bipartisanship he might see him citing things like this as examples of, yes, what Democrats are doing with control of the House.

KING: All right, quick for the hearing. That would comeback momentarily. Thanks for joining us for our portion of this on INSIDE POLITICS. Brianna Keilar will pick up our coverage after a quick break. Have a great afternoon.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Brianna Keilar and it's a contentious day of testimony from acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker.