If you’ve watched any congressional hearings in the past two years, you might recognize a familiar ritual when Democratic members of the House or Senate have attempted to question top Trump officials.
When seemingly simple “yes-no” questions arise, the witness might filibuster. If the question was about something the president might have discussed with the official, he might claim that executive privilege shielded conversations with the president—but executive privilege would never actually be asserted by the White House.
Ultimately, a five-minute timer would run out. At this point, the Republican chairman of the committee would hit the gavel and say the questioning period had ended and the hearing would move on. Sometimes, if the member of Congress would push too hard to get a specific answer, she would be shushed.
Because Republicans controlled the committees and showed little interest in seeing Democratic oversight inquiries answered, this would be the end of the matter. On Friday, in the House Judiciary Committee, newly empowered Democrats, led by Chairman Jerrold Nadler, had the opportunity to change the script.
In fact, the situation played out almost exactly as it had in the past, down to a Republican calling “time’s up” on a Democrat. This time it was the witness, Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, who attempted to shut down the questioning of the Democratic chairman by citing that time had expired when Nadler attempted to get Whitaker to answer questions about his role overseeing the special counsel’s office. “Mr. Chairman, I see that your five minutes is up,” Whitaker replied.
A number of attendees broke into laughter at this, including the chairman himself. It was unclear if it was actually meant as a joke, or a prompt. This early back-and-forth demonstrated the extent to which Whitaker may have been a poor choice as an early high-profile target of Democrats’ newfound congressional oversight efforts.
For one, as the committee’s ranking minority member Doug Collins noted in his opening remarks, Whitaker likely has less than a week left in office before William Barr is confirmed as the new attorney general. Secondly, as Collins also noted, Nadler had the day before held a vote to authorize a subpoena of Whitaker should he refuse to answer the panel’s questions, only to quietly holster that power after Whitaker threatened to cancel his appearance. Nadler had actually announced in a letter to Whitaker that was released to the public on Thursday evening that the committee would not use the subpoena “if you are prepared to respond to questions from our Members.” The clear implication was that a subpoena was still on the table if Whitaker dodged. In actuality, Collins said, the chairman had sent a second letter to the Department of Justice guaranteeing that there would be no subpoena.
As Collins described it, this was “a full-blown cave.”
Without a legitimate subpoena threat—and with so little time left for the acting attorney general in office—Whitaker felt comfortable literally laughing off Democrats’ questions. With time ticking down on Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee’s clock and the Texas congresswoman asking for more time in the face of the witness’ ducking, for example, Whitaker commented, “Congresswoman, I don’t know if your time has been restored or not.”
“We’re not joking here and your humor is not acceptable,” Jackson Lee responded.
That didn’t seem to stop it. When Jackson Lee repeated her line of questioning—a common one throughout the day—about what Whitaker may have shared about his views and understanding of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation with Trump or anyone in his inner circle, and Whitaker offered another non-answer, Jackson Lee asked if she could take the response as a “no.” The acting attorney general replied, “I don’t think you can assume anything.”
Democrats were seeking to get at these questions because of reports that Whitaker had essentially attempted to audition for a top job with the administration by publicly trashing Mueller, and that the president had eaten it up. With Whitaker then refusing to recuse himself from leading the DOJ’s inquiries into the president’s possible dirty laundry, questions have swirled about why he was put in charge of those investigations and what he has sought to do with that power. Again, there were few answers.
Democrats were mocked not only by Whitaker but by their colleagues on the other side of the aisle. While Rep. Eric Swalwell attempted to get Whitaker to answer questions about his previous work on a private watchdog organization, Collins interrupted to say, “If you’d ask questions that are actually part of this instead of running for president we could get this done.” Even a couple of Swalwell’s Democratic colleagues—Reps. Ted Deutch and David Cicilline—appeared to laugh at this remark.
Nadler said during the hearing that he was requesting Whitaker reappear before the committee for a sworn deposition to respond further to unanswered questions and for the White House to be forced to go on the record claiming executive privilege. Barring a change in the subpoena position, it’s unclear that will actually happen. And after Friday, it’s also unclear what the point might be.