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Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker testified before lawmakers Friday that he hasn't discussed special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia probe with President Donald Trump.
After the firing of Jeff Sessions, Whitaker has overseen Mueller's investigation into Russia's meddling in the 2016 election and possible collusion with the Trump campaign.
Democrats have expressed concern with Trump's appointment of Whitaker, citing his criticisms of the special counsel in an op-ed and on television. The interim appointment without Senate confirmation raised fears that the Mueller's ongoing probe, which Trump has frequently excoriated as a "witch hunt," could be undermined.
"I have not talked to the president of the United States about the special counsel investigation," Whitaker told the House Judiciary Committee in response to a question by committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y.
The hearing was marked by high tensions even before it began.
In a party-line vote Thursday morning, the Democrat-majority committee gave Nadler the power to subpoena Whitaker if he refused to answer questions, including during his testimony.
"I hope and expect that this subpoena will not be necessary — but unfortunately, a series of troubling events over the past few months suggest that we should be prepared," Nadler said in a statement before the vote.
In justifying the need for the threat of a subpoena, Nadler's statement said that Justice Department staff had attempted to walk back Whitaker's promise to Nadler in November that he would appear for an oversight hearing.
The statement added that other Trump administration witnesses have "often been allowed" to avoid answering questions, citing the "ridiculous" excuse used by Sessions that he could not answer certain questions because Trump might want to invoke "executive privilege."
Whitaker responded harshly, saying he would refuse to appear for the hearing unless he received assurances that he would not be subpoenaed.
"I remain willing to appear to testify tomorrow, provided that the chairman assures me that the committee will not issue a subpoena today or tomorrow, and that the committee will engage in good faith negotiations before taking such a step down the road," Whitaker said in a statement reported by The Washington Post.
The committee has "deviated from historic practice and protocol and taken the unnecessary and premature step of authorizing a subpoena to me, the acting attorney general, even though I had agreed to voluntarily appear," Whitaker said.
"Political theater is not the purpose of an oversight hearing, and I will not allow that to be the case."
Whitaker had criticized the Mueller probe of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election before he was tapped to become acting attorney general in November. Yet he did not recuse himself from overseeing that investigation — as Sessions had done — despite a Justice Department ethics official suggesting that he do so.