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 ramp up pressure on Lieberman to drop out of Georgia Senate race The Hill's Campaign Report: Biden on Trump: 'He'll leave' l GOP laywers brush off Trump's election remarks l Obama's endorsements GOP, Democrats look to galvanize women with SCOTUS fight 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 JordanHouse panel pulls Powell into partisan battles over pandemic Sunday shows preview: Justice Ginsburg dies, sparking partisan battle over vacancy before election House passes resolution condemning anti-Asian discrimination relating to coronavirus MORE (R-Ohio), a fierce ally of President TrumpDonald John TrumpFederal prosecutor speaks out, says Barr 'has brought shame' on Justice Dept. Former Pence aide: White House staffers discussed Trump refusing to leave office Progressive group buys domain name of Trump's No. 1 Supreme Court pick 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) MuellerCNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump CNN anchor rips Trump over Stone while evoking Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report: New Hampshire fallout 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 SessionsRoy Moore sues Alabama over COVID-19 restrictions GOP set to release controversial Biden report Trump's policies on refugees are as simple as ABCs 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 RosensteinDOJ kept investigators from completing probe of Trump ties to Russia: report Five takeaways from final Senate Intel Russia report FBI officials hid copies of Russia probe documents fearing Trump interference: book 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.