WATCH LIVE: Acting AG Whitaker faces grilling by Democrats in House committee

Del Quentin Wilber
Los Angeles Times
Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker arrives to appear before the House Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill, Friday, Feb. 8, 2019 in Washington.  Democrats are eager to press him on his interactions with President Donald Trump and his oversight of the special counsel's Russia investigation. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

WASHINGTON – Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker is scheduled to testify Friday before a congressional committee, where Democrats are expected to press him about his supervision of the special counsel investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, and other issues.

It will be the first high-profile hearing in the House since Democrats took control of the chamber last month, and they appear eager to flex their oversight muscles.

The House Judiciary Committee hearing comes a day after the chairman, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), and Whitaker sparred over Nadler’s threat to issue a subpoena to compel his appearance to answer questions.

In the end, Whitaker agreed to attend after Nadler promised not to subpoena him if he appeared. The lawmaker left open what might happen if the acting attorney general refused to answer specific questions.

Republicans have argued that the hearing is unnecessary because Whitaker is almost certainly on his way out.

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted Thursday to support William Barr, President Trump’s pick for attorney general, and the Republican-led Senate is expected to confirm him in coming weeks.

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Whitaker took over from Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Nov. 7, the day after the midterm election, when Trump successfully sought the resignation of his top law enforcement official.

Trump soured on Sessions after the attorney general recused himself from the Russia investigation in early 2017, and the president frequently bashed the former senator on Twitter and in interviews.

Whitaker had served for a year as Sessions’ chief of staff and built a rapport with Trump.

Before joining the department, Whitaker had publicly criticized special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation in columns and in TV interviews.

As acting attorney general, he refused to recuse himself from supervising Mueller’s probe despite the advice of a career Justice Department ethics official who was concerned his past comments created the appearance of a conflict of interest, department officials said.

In a news conference last month, Whitaker said he had been “fully briefed” on the Mueller investigation and that it was nearing a conclusion.

The House hearing nearly derailed on Thursday when Democrats on the panel voted to authorize Nadler to issue a subpoena to compel Whitaker to appear and answer questions.

Whitaker, who had agreed to testify voluntarily, responded by saying he would not attend the hearing unless Nadler promised he would not issue such a subpoena.

Nadler refused to withdraw the subpoena threat, but told Whitaker in a letter that “there will be no need” for him to take such an action if the acting attorney general appeared and answered questions.

If Whitaker cannot answer questions, Nadler would evaluate each instance on a “case-by-case” basis, he wrote.

The Justice Department issued a statement Thursday night that Nadler had “made the commitment that we requested” and would attend.