House Dems ready subpoena for acting Attorney General Whitaker if he refuses to testify

The Democrat-led House Judiciary Committee on Thursday voted to authorize a subpoena for Matthew Whitaker if the acting attorney general decides not to appear before the panel for scheduled testimony or declines to answer certain questions.

While Whitaker has already agreed to testify before the committee in public on Friday, Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said the vote on authorizing a subpoena was necessary in order to ensure that the top Justice Department official shows up and does not rely on executive privilege to decline to answer certain questions.

“When we invite officials to testify before this committee, they have to appear. When we ask them questions, they have to provide us with answers, or provide us with a valid and clearly articulated reason to withhold certain information,” Nadler said at a business meeting Thursday morning.

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“Without the threat of a subpoena, I believe it may be difficult to hold Mr. Whitaker to this standard.”

Lawmakers, in a party-line vote of 23-13, approved a resolution authorizing a subpoena for Whitaker’s testimony. The subpoena will only be issued if Whitaker does not appear or declines certain inquiries.

Republicans fervently pushed back on the vote, arguing that authorizing the subpoena was unnecessary because Whitaker had already agreed to testify. They cast it as a partisan move by Democrats, who hold newfound oversight power in the House following the November midterm elections.

Rep. Doug CollinsDouglas (Doug) Allen CollinsDemocrats bristle as Hicks appears for daylong Capitol Hill testimony Democrats bristle as Hicks appears for daylong Capitol Hill testimony Democrats fume, say Hicks declines to answer questions MORE (R-Ga.), the top Republican on the committee, described the move as a “departure from the norms” and said a subpoena “should be used as a last resort” only if a subject refuses to testify.

“This subpoena is nothing short of political theater,” Collins said.

Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanCummings requests interview with Census official over new allegations on citizenship question Cummings requests interview with Census official over new allegations on citizenship question House Oversight Republicans release parts of Kobach, Trump officials' testimony on census citizenship question MORE (R-Ohio), a fierce ally of President TrumpDonald John TrumpBooker hits Biden's defense of remarks about segregationist senators: 'He's better than this' Booker hits Biden's defense of remarks about segregationist senators: 'He's better than this' Trump says Democrats are handing out subpoenas 'like they're cookies' MORE, similarly noted there was no impasse preventing Whitaker’s testimony that would require the threat of a subpoena.

“Where the heck’s the impasse?” Jordan asked. “This is ridiculous — the guy is coming.”

Democrats, however, argued that the subpoena threat is necessary to ensure Whitaker answers lawmakers’ questions. They pointed to what they described as efforts by Whitaker to delay his testimony before the committee. 

“We’re not voting to issue a subpoena,” Nadler said. 

“The subpoena would be issued only if he doesn’t show up” he added, or if Whitaker “refuses to answer questions on a speculative basis of privilege.” 

Nadler has sent letters to Whitaker in recent weeks asking him to consult with the White House on a series of prepared questions to resolve any potential executive privilege issues ahead of the hearing. Nadler said Whitaker has not notified him of any such issues.

Whitaker’s public testimony Friday promises to be explosive. Democrats are expected to grill him on his oversight of special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerKamala Harris says her Justice Dept would have 'no choice' but to prosecute Trump for obstruction Kamala Harris says her Justice Dept would have 'no choice' but to prosecute Trump for obstruction Dem committees win new powers to investigate Trump MORE’s Russia investigation and his communications with the White House.

Whitaker has been a flashpoint for controversy since November, when Trump tapped him to serve at the helm of the Justice Department following Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsAlabama senator: Sessions hasn't ruled out Senate bid Alabama senator: Sessions hasn't ruled out Senate bid The Hill's Morning Report - Trump to kick off bid for second term in Florida MORE’s ouster. Whitaker, who had been critical of Mueller’s probe before he joined the administration, is viewed as a political ally of the president.

Democrats and other Trump critics have raised concerns that Whitaker could take steps to thwart Mueller’s probe.

Democrats on Thursday also rejected an effort by Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) to offer an amendment that would have added Deputy Attorney General Rod RosensteinRod RosensteinTrump blasts Mueller, decries 'witch hunt' at 2020 launch Trump blasts Mueller, decries 'witch hunt' at 2020 launch Trump: I didn't fire Mueller since firings 'didn't work out too well' for Nixon MORE’s name to the subpoena.

Republicans on Capitol Hill have clamored for Rosenstein’s testimony after the New York Times reported last year that he had discussed secretly recording Trump and invoking the 25th amendment to expel him from office.

Rosenstein had also been overseeing Mueller’s probe for more than a year as a result of Sessions’ recusal. 

Updated: 11:45 a.m.