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 CollinsThe United States broken patent system is getting worse Democratic Women's Caucus calls for investigation into Epstein plea deal Activist groups push House Judiciary leaders to end mass phone data collection 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 JordanDemocratic Women's Caucus calls for investigation into Epstein plea deal DOJ releases notes from official Bruce Ohr's Russia probe interviews CNN slams GOP for not appearing on network after mass shootings, conservatives fire back MORE (R-Ohio), a fierce ally of President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic field begins to shrink ahead of critical stretch To ward off recession, Trump should keep his mouth and smartphone shut Trump: 'Who is our bigger enemy,' Fed chief or Chinese leader? 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 MuellerMueller report fades from political conversation Trump calls for probe of Obama book deal Democrats express private disappointment with Mueller testimony 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 SessionsA better way to run the Federal Bureau of Prisons Trump admin erases key environmental enforcement tool DOJ should take action against China's Twitter propaganda 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 Rosenstein10 declassified Russia collusion revelations that could rock Washington this fall Why the presumption of innocence doesn't apply to Trump McCabe sues FBI, DOJ, blames Trump for his firing 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.