House panel authorizes subpoena for acting attorney general

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. House Judiciary Committee voted along party lines on Thursday to authorize a subpoena in case acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker fails to show up to a hearing on Friday or declines to answer certain questions.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler said he hopes he will not need to issue the subpoena, which was authorized in a vote of 23-13, but that he fears Whitaker could dodge questions about Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation or his communications with the White House.

“This resolution merely authorizes the subpoena,” Nadler said. “If Mr. Whitaker appears in the hearing room, as scheduled, and if he provides direct answers to our questions, then I have no intention of ever issuing this subpoena.”

A subpoena would compel Whitaker to testify. If he still declined, Democrats could potentially take steps to have him held in contempt of Congress.

A Justice Department spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Whitaker has faced criticism since President Donald Trump appointed him in November after ousting Jeff Sessions as attorney general.

Prior to joining the Justice Department, Whitaker made multiple negative comments about Mueller’s investigation into whether Trump’s campaign may have colluded with Russia.

He also has declined to recuse himself from overseeing the investigation after career ethics officials at the department urged him to step aside to avoid the appearance of a conflict.

Trump has denied collusion with Russia and has called Mueller’s probe a witch hunt.

Nadler has warned Whitaker that he should not try to dodge questions by asserting the answers could involve matters subject to executive privilege, and provided Whitaker in advance with a list of questions he can expect on Friday.

Sessions often refused to discuss any of his communications with the White House, even if the White House had not invoked executive privilege.

Nadler also has tussled with the Justice Department over the scheduling for Whitaker’s testimony.

On Thursday, Nadler claimed some Justice Department officials may have counseled Whitaker not to attend Friday’s hearing, although he still believes Whitaker will show up.

Republicans blasted Democrats for using the possibility of a subpoena to hang over Whitaker’s head after he voluntarily agreed to appear.

“This subpoena is nothing short of political theater, choreographed by the chairman and starring the acting attorney general as some mythological protector of secrets,” said Doug Collins, the most senior Republican on the Judiciary Committee.

Representative Jim Jordan, a member of the conservative Freedom Caucus, also blasted the move.

“This is ridiculous. The guy is coming,” he said.

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