Val Demings calls acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker's answers 'pitiful'

Chip Somodevilla  Getty Images North America

Chip Somodevilla Getty Images North America

On Friday morning, Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker told Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) that he had exceeded his five-minute time limit during a Justice Department oversight hearing, drawing gasps from the packed room.

Asked whether he had ever been asked to approve any request or action by the office of special counsel Robert Mueller, Whitaker refused to answer.

During a testy exchange with Democratic Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, Mr Whitaker at one point responded: "Mr Chairman, it appears that your five minutes is up", triggering tense laughter in the chamber.

"Mr. Chairman, I see that your five minutes is up", Whitaker said.

The House hearing almost derailed on Thursday when Democrats on the panel voted to authorize Nadler to issue a subpoena to compel Whitaker to appear and answer questions.

Whitaker said he has no reason to believe Mueller is not honest, but he declined to say whether he considers the special counsel is on a "witch hunt", as President Donald Trump has said. "We thank Attorney General Jeff Sessions for his service, and wish him well!"

According to CNN, former Trump associate Roger Stone was "one of the last key campaign associates" to be investigated.

Mr Whitaker is due to be replaced by William Barr after a Senate confirmation hearing in the coming weeks. Nadler asked Whitaker if he and Trump had discussed the ongoing probe.

Whitaker is the first top Trump administration official to testify before Congress since Democrats won control of the House in the November midterm elections.

He also said he had never discussed with the White House special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into potential coordination between Russian Federation and Donald Trump's campaign. "Given reports that Whitaker had engaged in extensive preparation, including mock questioning, I figured he would be armed with prepared responses to the questions he has been asked so far, which he should have anticipated in advance".

Trump also announced Whitaker would be appointed as acting Attorney General the day after Democrats officially won the House of Representatives. Nadler reminded Whitaker that the committee had submitted questions relating to the special counsel investigation and was waiting on answers.

Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the committee's ranking Republican, said the hearing was "nothing more than a character assassination" and an attempt to "get at the president". He also signaled that he would give limited answers about the investigation itself.

"I trust that the Members of this Committee will respect the confidentiality that is necessary to the proper functioning of the Presidency - just as we respect the confidentiality necessary to the Legislative Branch", Whitaker said.

Republicans, meanwhile, dismissed the hearing with the lame-duck attorney general as a political stunt and even moved to end it before it began.

Democrats said they would inquire about Whitaker's past business dealings, too. "Have you communicated any information in that briefing to President Trump?".

The Russia investigation into Trump campaign ties and possible obstruction of justice has been highly politicised since Mr Trump's firing of FBI Director James Comey in May 2017.

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