Democrat to acting AG: 'We are not joking here'

Rep. Sheila Jackson LeeSheila Jackson LeePhotos of the Week: Olympic sabre semi-finals, COVID-19 vigil and a loris House ethics panel decides against probe after Hank Johnson civil disobedience Jackson Lee is third CBC member in three weeks to be arrested protesting for voting rights MORE (D-Texas) chided acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker for behaving in an unacceptable manner during a confrontational House Judiciary Committee hearing Friday.  

“Mr. attorney general, we are not joking here,” Jackson Lee said. “And your humor is not acceptable.”

The tense exchange came as the congresswoman asked Whitaker a series of yes or no questions about his role at the Justice Department and oversight of special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerSenate Democrats urge Garland not to fight court order to release Trump obstruction memo Why a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel MORE’s investigation. Members often asked yes or no questions during oversight hearings in order to cycle through more inquiries within the five-minute time limit they have for questions.

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At one point, Jackson Lee was interrupted and asked for her time to be restored.

“Can the clock be restored?” Jackson Lee asked.

Whitaker quipped in response, “I don’t know if your time has been restored or not.”

Jackson Lee then chastised Whitaker for his humor and said he was there “because we have a constitutional duty to ask questions and the Congress has the right to establish government rules.”

“The rules are that you are here, so I need to ask the question and I need to have my time restored so that you can behave appropriately, I will behave appropriately as a member of the Judiciary Committee,” Jackson Lee said.

Whitaker earlier had offered a cheeky response to Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), telling him that his “five minutes is up” for questioning.

It is remarkable for a witness to make such a comment to a chairman, as lawmakers from both parties routinely go over their allotted time.

It is not unusual for witnesses to avoid giving yes or no answers to questions from committee members, something noted by the top Republican on the Judiciary panel, Rep. Doug CollinsDouglas (Doug) Allen CollinsLoeffler meets with McConnell amid speculation of another Senate run Georgia agriculture commissioner launches Senate campaign against Warnock Poll shows tight GOP primary for Georgia governor MORE (Ga.) 

After her remark, Jackson Lee went on to pepper Whitaker with a series of yes or no questions, many of which he declined to answer outright.

Whitaker’s appearance before the House Judiciary Committee on Friday morning was his first time appearing before Congress. Whitaker repeatedly butted heads with Democrats on the committee in the early minutes of the hearing.

Whitaker faced several questions on his oversight and past statements about Mueller’s investigation, as well as his interactions with President TrumpDonald TrumpSenators introduce bipartisan infrastructure bill in rare Sunday session Gosar's siblings pen op-ed urging for his resignation: 'You are immune to shame' Sunday shows - Delta variant, infrastructure dominate MORE and other White House officials.

In several instances, Whitaker declined to answer questions about the Mueller investigation, noting that the probe is ongoing and that speaking about it would be inappropriate. 

Whitaker has emerged as a controversial figure since Trump tapped him to helm the Justice Department in November after Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsWant to evaluate Donald Trump's judgment? Listen to Donald Trump Democrat stalls Biden's border nominee Garland strikes down Trump-era immigration court rule, empowering judges to pause cases MORE's ouster as attorney general. Whitaker has specifically been scrutinized for critical statements he made about Mueller's investigation before joining the department. 

Whitaker testified repeatedly Friday that he has not "interfered" in Mueller's probe — something that Democrats and other Trump critics have raised concerns about.