WASHINGTON — The head of the House Judiciary Committee says he will hold a vote Thursday to approve a subpoena for acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker just in case he doesn’t show up for scheduled testimony a day later.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., says he is holding the vote "in an abundance of caution" to ensure that Whitaker appears and "answers our questions cleanly."
Whitaker is scheduled to testify before the panel on Friday even as the Senate is close to confirming President Donald Trump's nominee for attorney general, William Barr. Democrats have said they want to talk to Whitaker because he is a close ally of Trump who has criticized special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation. Whitaker is currently overseeing that probe.
When the hearing was announced last month, both Nadler and the Justice Department said that Whitaker had agreed to appear voluntarily.
"To be clear, I hope never to use this subpoena," Nadler said in the statement. "Weeks ago, we gave Mr. Whitaker a list of questions we hope to ask him about his communications with the White House and his refusal to recuse himself from oversight of the special counsel's investigation. If he appears on time and ready to answer those questions, the subpoena will be entirely unnecessary."
Whitaker took the job in November after Trump pushed out Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Trump had repeatedly criticized Sessions for recusing himself from Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, which is examining ties between Russia and the Trump campaign. Trump calls the probe a "witch hunt."
Nadler has criticized Whitaker for not recusing himself from the Mueller probe as Sessions did, given Whitaker's past comments criticizing the probe. He said last year that Whitaker's decision appeared to be "to satisfy President Trump and not to protect the integrity of the department or its ongoing work."
As part of a larger effort by House Democrats to give more power to committee members, Nadler has said that the panel will hold votes on subpoenas in most cases. Because Democrats hold the majority of seats on the committee, the vote will usually just be a formality if the chairman decides to subpoena a witness.
Democrats have contrasted that process with that of the Republicans, who unilaterally subpoenaed some witnesses when they were in the majority last year as part of a joint probe into the FBI with the House Oversight panel.
Nadler said in the statement that the top Republican on the panel, Georgia Rep. Doug Collins, had "expressed reservations" about holding the vote. In a statement, Collins asked when the committee started subpoenaing witnesses who had agreed to testify voluntarily.
"The message to witnesses here is, if you make the time and effort to appear of your own accord, Democrats are going to subpoena you anyway," Collins said.
The hearing will be the panel’s first major oversight hearing looking at the Department of Justice. Last week, Whitaker told reporters that Mueller’s Russia probe is “close to being completed” — the first official sign that the investigation may be wrapping up. His comments were a departure for the Justice Department, which rarely comments on the state of the investigation into whether President Donald Trump’s campaign coordinated with Russia during the 2016 presidential election. Whitaker said he had been “fully briefed” on the probe.