Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker said Thursday he won't appear before Congress unless a House committee drops its threat of a subpoena for his testimony, calling the Democratic-led move an act of "political theater."
The statement from Whitaker came soon after the House Judiciary Committee approved a tentative subpoena for Whitaker in an effort to ensure that he appears at a hearing Friday and answers questions.
The vote doesn't issue a subpoena to Whitaker but allows committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler to do so if Whitaker is uncooperative. Nadler said he hopes not to have to use the subpoena, but "a series of troubling events over the past few months suggest that we should be prepared."
Nadler, a New York Democrat, said that as late as last week the committee had received reports that some at the department were counseling Whitaker not to appear.
Whitaker insisted Thursday that 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 criticized the committee for prematurely and unnecessarily authorizing 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 theater is not the purpose of an oversight hearing, and I will not allow that to be the case," he added.
Whitaker is scheduled to testify before the panel on Friday even though his time leading the Justice Department is coming to a close, with the Senate expected this month to confirm President Donald Trump's nominee for attorney general, William Barr. The Senate Judiciary Committee voted along party lines Thursday to approve Barr's nomination, sending the pick to the full Senate.
Democrats have said they want to talk to Whitaker because he is a close ally of Trump and has criticized special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation, which he oversees.
Nadler noted that previous Trump administration officials, including former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, have declined to answer questions about conversations with the White House during testimony, saying that the president might want to claim executive privilege on those conversations in the future. Nadler said that is "ridiculous" and administration officials must provide the committee with answers or a better excuse to withhold them.
"Without the threat of a subpoena, I believe it may be difficult to hold Mr. Whitaker to this standard," Nadler said.
Nadler said he sent Whitaker a letter asking him to notify the committee if he planned to assert such executive privilege, but Whitaker never responded.
Thursday's vote fell along party lines. Republicans strongly opposed the measure, saying it was unnecessary because Whitaker was appearing voluntarily.
"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 Georgia Rep. Doug Collins, the top Republican on the panel. "Nothing could be further from the truth."
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