Whitaker refuses to testify unless Democrats drop subpoena threat

House panel approves tentative subpoena for the acting attorney general in an effort to ensure he appears at a hearing.

     In this file photo taken on November 15, 2018 Acting US Attorney General Matthew Whitaker attends the annual Veterans Appreciation Day ceremony at the Department of Justice in Washington, DC [Nicholas Kamm/AFP]
    In this file photo taken on November 15, 2018 Acting US Attorney General Matthew Whitaker attends the annual Veterans Appreciation Day ceremony at the Department of Justice in Washington, DC [Nicholas Kamm/AFP]

    Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker said on Thursday he would not appear before Congress unless a House committee dropped its threat of a subpoena for his testimony.

    The committee's Democrats want to question Whitaker about his oversight of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election and his communications with the White House relating to the probe and the firing of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

    But Whitaker, who US President Donald Trump chose to head the Justice Department after firing Sessions in November, said the possibility of a subpoena showed the committee's "true intention is ... create a public spectacle".

    Whitaker's statement came after the House Judiciary Committee approved a tentative subpoena for the acting attorney general in an effort to ensure he appears at a hearing on Friday and answers questions.

    The vote doesn't issue a subpoena but allows committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler to do so if Whitaker is uncooperative. Whitaker called the Democratic-led move an act of "political theatre".

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

    Nadler said that the panel was ready to work with Whitaker to address any concerns he might have about answering certain questions about the hearing. The Democrat stopped short of withdrawing the threat of an eventual subpoena. 

    "If you appear before the committee tomorrow morning and you are prepared to respond to questions from our members, then I assure you that there will be no need for the committee to issue a subpoena on or before February 8," Nadler wrote in a letter to Whitaker. 

    'Troubling events'

    Earlier on Thursday, Nadler said he hoped not to have to use the subpoena, but "a series of troubling events over the past few months suggest that we should be prepared". 

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    Nadler added that as late as last week the committee had received reports that some at the department were counselling Whitaker not to appear.

    Whitaker insisted on Thursday that was not the case, saying he had "devoted considerable resources and numerous hours to my preparation" and was looking forward to the hearing.

    He criticised the committee for prematurely and unnecessarily authorising a subpoena for him even though he had agreed to appear.

    "Such unprecedented action breaches our prior agreement and circumvents the constitutionally required accommodation process," Whitaker said in a statement. "Based upon today's action, it is apparent that the Committee's true intention is not to discuss the great work of the Department of Justice but to create a public spectacle. Political theatre is not the purpose of an oversight hearing, and I will not allow that to be the case."

    Whitaker has faced questions since Trump appointed him over his criticism of the Mueller probe. 

    Mueller is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. Trump has repeatedly called the probe a "witch-hunt" and Russia has denied any involvement. 

    SOURCE: News agencies