House Judiciary Dem, Republican clash over details of Whitaker testimony

The top Democrat and Republican on the House Judiciary Committee are offering diverging interpretations of former acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker's closed-door testimony regarding the Michael CohenMichael Dean CohenJudge says probe tied to Trump hush-money payments is over Judge finds Stone violated gag order, blocks him from using social media Feds unlikely to charge Trump Organization execs in campaign finance case: report MORE case.

Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) claims Whitaker "did not deny" that President Trump had called to talk to Whitaker about "personnel decisions" involving a federal investigation into hush-money payments made to two women who allege they had affairs with Trump.

“Mr. Whitaker did not deny that the president called him to discuss the Michael Cohen case and personnel decisions in the southern district,” Nadler told reporters after questioning Whitaker behind closed doors for roughly two hours. He was referring to the Southern District of New York (SDNY), which has led an investigation into the payments.

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The panel’s top Republican, Rep. Doug Collins (Ga.), said he had a different takeaway.

"No, I didn't have that takeaway at all. In fact, he said he never talked with the president about Mr. Cohen at all and no conversation with the Southern District of New York either," Collins told reporters, noting that the closed-door meeting was not transcribed.

"I think that is [Nadler's] interpretation of what he said. Mr. Whitaker said he did not have conversations with the president about Cohen. ... If Mr. Nadler chooses to say by absence of what he didn't say and that is how he is interpreting that, then Mr. Nadler will have to answer to that," he added.

Nadler also claimed that Whitaker was involved in conversations about U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman, a Trump ally, being put in charge of the SDNY probe that has since resulted in jail time for Cohen, Trump's former personal attorney.

His remarks came after The New York Times reported in February that Trump requested that Whitaker put Berman in charge of the investigation.

Whitaker knew Berman could not un-recuse himself and declined to act on the president’s request, fueling Trump’s frustration with his interim appointee, the Times reported.

"Whitaker was involved in conversations about the scope of the Southern District of New York U.S. attorney's recusal and whether the southern district went too far in pursuing the campaign finance case in which the president was listed as [Individual-1],” Nadler asserted Wednesday.

"The only thing that Mr. Whitaker actually said about that is that he had some questions with his own personal staff, but he never had any comments or any conversations about recusal about the southern district case while acting attorney general,” Collins said in response to the chairman's comments.

The top Republican and Democrat also differed on whether Whitaker was involved in firing multiple U.S. attorneys while he was helming the Justice Department following Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsTrump's no racist — he's an equal opportunity offender Press: Acosta, latest to walk the plank The Hill's Morning Report — Trump retreats on census citizenship question MORE's departure last fall.

“While he was acting attorney general, Mr. Whitaker was directly involved in conversations about whether to fire multiple U.S. attorneys,” Nadler said.

Collins pushed back, saying the firings were related to run-of-the-mill personnel matters and implying otherwise "is really an overreach and a stretch that should not have been made."

The two competing narratives emerged after Whitaker testified behind closed doors on Wednesday, a month after Democrats alleged that he gave misleading testimony during his public hearing before the House Oversight and Reform Committee, where he faced a barrage of questions about his contacts with Trump, particularly as it related to ongoing investigations.

His roughly two-hour appearance came after Nadler had invited Whitaker to “clarify” his testimony in mid-February, claiming that he “repeatedly refused to offer clear responses regarding your communications with the White House, and you were inconsistent in your application of the Department’s policy related to the discussion of ongoing investigations.”

Democrats immediately scrutinized Trump’s decision to tap Whitaker to lead the Justice Department in November, following the ouster of Sessions one day after the midterm elections.

Whitaker, who is seen as a Trump loyalist, became a flashpoint for Democrats who vowed to bring him before Congress after older videos and comments surfaced in which he criticized of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, which he temporarily had oversight of as the interim top Justice Department official.

His tenure ended with the confirmation of Attorney General William Barr last month.

Two counsels on the Judiciary minority team who were in the closed-door meeting Wednesday say Whitaker maintained that he had internal discussions within the Justice Department about the Cohen case because he thought some of the claims were “specious" and that he had serious questions about the campaign finance case.

These, they noted, were Whitaker’s views from a legal standpoint.

The two GOP counsels also say he never interacted with SDNY during his tenure and he has has no memory of the reported Berman recusal request, something he told lawmakers he would’ve remembered if it had come up.

They noted that Nadler noted that his fears about Whitaker interfering in the Mueller probe weren’t “born out” as “far as we know.”

Updated: 6:45 p.m.