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Acting attorney general says he has not talked about Mueller probe with Trump

Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, center, attends the State of the Union address before members of Congress in Washington, D.C. Washington Post photo by Melina Mara

WASHINGTON - Acting attorney general Matthew Whitaker said Friday he has not spoken to President Donald Trump about the special counsel investigation since taking the helm at the Justice Department in November.

From the opening minutes of a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee, Whitaker was pressed by Democrats to explain his role in overseeing special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign.

Whitaker made clear at the outset that he would not talk about his conversations with Trump - which led quickly to a contentious exchange with the committee's chairman, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y.

"There has been no change in the overall management of the Special Counsel investigation," Whitaker said in his prepared remarks. "I have and will continue to manage this investigation in a manner that is consistent with the governing regulations."

Nadler repeatedly pressed Whitaker to explain what he has been told about the special counsel investigation, and what he has told others.

"I have not talked to the president of the United States about the special counsel's investigation," Whitaker said, adding that he also hasn't talked to White House officials about the inquiry. Whitaker would not say when or how often he has been briefed on that investigation.

As Nadler kept insisting Whitaker say whether he had approved investigative steps taken by Mueller, the acting attorney general tried to dodge the question.

"Mr. Chairman, I see that your five minutes is up," Whitaker said, prompting laughter in the hearing room, as the witness tried to turn the tables on his inquisitor. In congressional hearings, committee chairman control the time for questions, not other lawmakers or the witnesses.

Eventually, Whitaker relented and answered Nadler's question.

"We have followed the special counsel's regulations to a 'T.' There has been no event, no decision, that has required me to take any action, and I have not interfered in any way with the special counsel's investigation," Whitaker said.

The committee's top Republican, Rep. Douglas Collins of Georgia said the hearing "is nothing more than character assassination," and accused Democrats of political grandstanding. "This hearing is pointless!" he said.

As expected, Whitaker sparred almost continuously with Democrats on the panel over the special counsel investigation involving the president, while Republicans mostly asked him about administration policy.

At one point, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, snapped at Whitaker when he made a casual remark about the time in the hearing.

"Mr. Attorney General, we're not joking here, and you're humor is not acceptable," said Jackson Lee.

At another point, Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., tried unsuccessfully to coax Whitaker into saying the Russia probe is not a "witch hunt," as the president often refers to it.

"Congressman, it would be inappropriate for me to talk about an ongoing investigation," Whitaker said several times.

On Thursday, Whitaker had said he would not appear before the committee as scheduled unless committee Democrats gave him assurances he wouldn't be subpoenaed.

Earlier Thursday evening, Nadler sent a letter to Whitaker that provided no such promise, saying only that "there will be no need for a subpoena" if Whitaker answers lawmakers' questions. "To the extent that you believe you are unable to fully respond to any specific question, we are prepared to handle your concerns on a case-by-case basis, both during and after tomorrow's hearing," Nadler wrote.

The two sides continued discussions throughout the evening and eventually, according to Justice Department officials, Nadler agreed that no subpoena would be issued Thursday or Friday.

On Thursday night, Nadler tweeted that Whitaker "will appear [Friday] morning at 9:30am," capping a dramatic day-long standoff over whether Whitaker would scrap his appearance entirely.

Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said that Nadler "has made the commitment that we requested, and agreed that, if Mr. Whitaker voluntarily appears at tomorrow's hearing, the committee will not issue a subpoena on or before February 8. In light of that commitment, acting attorney general Whitaker looks forward to voluntarily appearing at tomorrow's hearing and discussing the great work of the Department of Justice."

The tense back-and-forth only served to raise the stakes on Whitaker's scheduled appearance, as each side accused the other of acting in bad faith, and sought to set a tone for the next two years of confrontations between the Democratic-controlled House and the Trump administration.

"The fact Chairman Nadler would try to force the public disclosure of private conversations that he knows are protected by law proves he only wants to play politics," White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Thursday. "The chairman should focus on helping the American people, rather than wasting time playing pointless political games."

This article was written by Devlin Barrett and Karoun Demirjian, reporters for The Washington Post.