Moments into his testimony before the House Judiciary Committee on Friday, acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker helped set the tone for the hearing by refusing to directly answer questions from Democrats and drew audible gasps when he told committee chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) that his "five minutes were up."
Nadler called the hearing to provide oversight of the U.S. Department of Justice, which Whitaker has overseen since former Attorney General Jeff Sessions was fired in November. Whitaker agreed to testify at the hearing where Democrats' questioning largely focused on his oversight of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation.
The acting attorney general first challenged Nadler's line of questioning when the chairman asked whether he had been briefed on Mueller's investigation in December 2018, including just before announcing that he would not recuse himself from the probe. Whitaker demanded to know the "basis" of the question.
"It is our understanding that at least one briefing occurred between your decision not to recuse yourself on December 19 and six days later, Christmas Day," Nadler said.
Whitaker then said he would not answer questions based on representatives' "speculation."
The exchange grew more contentious when Whitaker flatly refused to answer Nadler when he asked whether Whitaker's approval had ever been requested for action by Mueller's probe.
"Mr. Chairman, I see that your five minutes is up," Whitaker said. "I'm here voluntarily, I agreed to five-minute rounds."
The remark drew a surprised look from the chairman as well as gasps and laughter from the room.
Jerry Nadler asks Matthew Whitaker if he has ever been asked to approve any request or action to be taken by the Special Counsel.
Whitaker: "Mr. Chairman, I see that your five minutes is up."
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The response in the room is remarkable. Via CSPAN2 pic.twitter.com/UAcOyulX46
— Kyle Griffin (@kylegriffin1) February 8, 2019
On social media, critics expressed shock at Whitaker's conduct, with some asserting that his rebuke of Nadler—like Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh's angry testimony before a Senate committee in September—was likely for President Donald Trump's benefit.
The ignorance & lack of respect for a coequal branch of govt is indeed astonishing, & the chairman can make whatever rules he wants in his own hearing.
Let’s also remember that like every other cabinet official (& one SupCt Justice), Whitaker is playing to an audience of one. https://t.co/PdDTWr7BJq
— Tamara Cofman Wittes (@tcwittes) February 8, 2019
Whitaker: "Mr. Chairman, your five-minutes are up."
There have been witnesses hauled out of committee rooms in irons for being far less arrogant than that.
— Charles P. Pierce (@CharlesPPierce) February 8, 2019
Whitaker continued the tone of his testimony, repeating his challenge of the committee's right to question his actions as head of the Justice Department when her demanded to know if Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) was basing a question on "anonymous sources." He then asked whether she was permitted to continue with her questioning despite going over her five-minute limit.
"Mr. Attorney General, we are not joking here and your humor is not acceptable," she said. "You are here because we have a constitutional duty to ask questions and the Congress has the right to establish rules."