The Democratic chairman of the House Judiciary Committee wants to know whether acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker had anything to do with last week’s rare statement from special counsel Robert Mueller about BuzzFeed.
In a sternly-worded letter, Rep. Jerrold Nadler told Whitaker to get ready to answer that question and a lot more during the acting AG’s planned appearance before the House Judiciary Committee on February 8.
The special counsel’s office shocked Washington on Friday by actually issuing a statement about a news story, following months of stony silence. In a vague press release, Mueller’s spokesman, Peter Carr, disputed BuzzFeed’s blockbuster report that claimed that President Trump had instructed his former attorney and “fixer,” Michael Cohen, to lie to Congress about attempts to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. Yet the special counsel’s rebuke raised a new set of questions about what was actually in dispute: the entirety of the report, or certain details within.
After Mueller’s statement, reports in both the Washington Post and The New York Times appeared to further challenge BuzzFeed’s story. The Post cited officials who said the statement was meant to be taken as a flat denial, and a source familiar with the probe told the Times that Cohen had not laid such a charge against his former boss. BuzzFeed, meanwhile, continues to stand by its story.
Mueller’s team, according to reports, did not arrive at their statement lightly. BuzzFeed’s reporting caused such a stir throughout Capitol Hill that it prompted hurried discussions within the Department of Justice and the White House.
The office of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein reached out to Mueller’s team to ask whether a statement was forthcoming, and was told that one soon would be, The Washington Post reported Saturday. And Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani told CNN that President Trump’s legal team had also placed a call to Mueller’s office the morning after the BuzzFeed story came out. But Giuliani wouldn’t provide more details about what was discussed.
Now, Nadler is probing whether those lines of communication passed through Trump’s hand-picked acting Attorney General, whose role overseeing the Mueller investigation has stirred controversy thanks to his past public criticisms of the investigation.
“On January 18, the Special Counsel issued a rare statement describing some aspects of the BuzzFeed story as inaccurate,” Nadler’s letter reads. “Did you have any communication with the White House about the BuzzFeed report or the decision of the Special Counsel’s office to issue its subsequent statement? If so, with whom? What was discussed?”
Nadler raised the possibility of actually using his newfound subpoena power if Whitaker tries to avoid giving a straight answer.
“My hope is that you will answer these questions voluntarily so that the Committee can avoid resorting to compulsory process,” Nadler wrote.
Nadler also demanded answers about Whitaker’s discussions with Trump after Cohen pleaded guilty in December to lying to Congress, and about whether Whitaker had ever shared information he learned about Mueller’s investigation with the White House.
Whitaker’s been a source of intrigue and agitation among Democratic leaders since the day Trump tapped him to replace Jeff Sessions — attorneys general from 14 states and the District of Columbia have challenged the constitutionality of his appointment.
Former federal prosecutors and legal experts have also pointed to his relatively thin resume and public critiques of the Mueller probe as further proof of his ill-fitness to hold the title of the nation’s top cop.
Before becoming the nation's most senior law enforcement official, Whitaker had a paid role on the advisory board of an invention-promotion company that was shut down by a judge after the FTC accused it of being a “scam.” Among the company’s most notable products was a so-called ”masculine toilet” for well-endowed men.
Cover: Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker speaks during a news conference, Friday, Nov. 30, 2018, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/John Minchillo).