Lessons from the Whitaker hearing

Lessons from the Whitaker hearing

by digby

From Natasha Bertrand at the Atlantic:

It took about five minutes of questioning for the acting attorney general to provoke gasps and jeers in the congressional hearing room. “Your five minutes is up,” Matthew Whitaker, an ex–U.S. attorney turned toilet salesman, told the House Judiciary Committee’s Democratic chairman, Jerry Nadler. Nadler cracked a smile, but from that point on, the rules of engagement seemed clear: Whitaker, with just days remaining in his legally dubious role as the interim head of the Justice Department, appeared to be playing to an audience of one.

President Donald Trump appointed Whitaker late last year to replace Jeff Sessions, whose recusal from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation in early 2017 was viewed by the president as an unforgivable betrayal. But Whitaker was not the obvious replacement—he served for a few years as a U.S. attorney in Iowa, but spent far longer in private practice and partisan politics. He also served as a paid advisory-board member of a fraudulent invention-promotion firm. Later, he was the executive director of a conservative nonprofit funded by dark money. And then came his stint as a CNN commentator in 2017, during which he blasted Mueller and opined that his probe had “gone too far.” All of this received heavy scrutiny as the constitutional basis of his appointment was challenged in the courts.

But Friday marked his first oversight hearing on Capitol Hill.

“I’m confused, I really am,” Democratic Representative Hakeem Jeffries told Whitaker at one point. “We’re all trying figure out: Who are you, where did you come from, and how the heck did you become the head of the Department of Justice?”

Despite the lingering questions about his resume and suspicions about why he was appointed over Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who would have been Sessions’s natural replacement, Whitaker presented himself to Nadler, a 13-term congressman, with the same aloofness and disdain for tradition that often seems typical of the Trump White House. And that may have been on purpose. Whitaker, whose tenure ends when Bill Barr is confirmed as attorney general next week, will need a new job. He has reportedly been considered for the role of Trump’s chief of staff. And though he testified under oath that he had “not interfered in any way with the special counsel’s investigation,” he repeatedly declined to contradict Trump’s claims that Mueller is on a “witch hunt.”

Chuck Rosenberg, a former senior Justice Department official who resigned in 2017, said it would have been “easy” for Whitaker to say that Mueller’s investigation is legitimate, as Barr did during his recent confirmation hearings. “I don’t know how somebody could be that cowardly,” he added. But doing so would have undermined what is arguably his boss’s most important talking point—and that would not have been a good move for Whitaker if he was, in fact, auditioning for his next position

I hear he wants to be chief of staff when Mulvaney abandons ship (as he's rumored to be desperate to do.)

It's looking good for him. Last night he thumbed his nose at all the ethics snobs by running over to the Trump hotel to show his fealty to his criminal boss and put some money in his pocket.

And the boss is pleased:

President Trump watched live cable coverage of yesterday's chippy Hill testimony by acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker, and liked what he saw.

The big picture: "He liked the combative approach," said an outside West Wing adviser familiar with Trump's thinking. "He thought the Democrats were grandstanding." Inside the White House, according to the adviser, here were the lessons learned: Do not give an inch, push back, resist, delay, deflect.

The officials recognize a key flaw in this strategy: Some Trump Cabinet members, likely bound for the witness chair, don't have the experience or agility to pull a Whitaker.

Longtime Hill watchers struggled to remember a time when an administration witness had treated a committee with such disdain: 

  • In the most memorable moment, Whitaker sassed House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.): "Mr. Chairman, I see that your five minutes is up," using the committee's rules to bat away a question. 
  • MSNBC host Ari Melber called Whitaker "remarkably rude … at times a jerk" to members who were asking straightforward questions. 
  • Remember: The Senate is expected to confirm Bill Barr as attorney general as soon as next week. So Whitaker's performance is mainly a window into Whitaker.
A House Democratic leadership aide familiar with the new majority's investigation strategy told me after yesterday's hearing: 
"We watched Dems, having been frustrated for two years with little to no oversight from the Republicans, demanding answers from a top administration official — the first under this new Congress — who came in belligerent and unwilling to cooperate is even the smallest ways." 
"This is no means the end."

The GOP's gamble: The White House recognizes that it can do little to resist the House Dems' demands for testimony. Republicans just hope that over time, they can argue to their base that Dems have been guilty of overreach and "show trials." 
A Republican political operative and Capitol Hill veteran told me: "It doesn’t take long for ordinary voters — who are very different from people in Washington — to start seeing participating committee members as pompous, rude and belittling, and begin to side with whoever is sitting in the hot seat."

If I had to guess,  the press will go along with the Republican plan. I've seen pearl-clutching today about Democratic rudeness in the hearing so I'm guessing that unless they lay down and let Trump's cronies walk all over them, the media will end up siding with the Trumpies.

Remember folks, many members of the media are yearning to be able to blame both sides for the political mess we are in. It's very uncomfortable for them to have to report that the Republicans are batshit crazy. (Keep an eye on the NY Times and CNN's biggest stars...)  They know that half the country sees telling the truth as political bias so they reach for anything to prove they are "just as hard on Democrats."

As the Dems exert their power to thwart the Republicans they will go above and beyond to portray that as the same as GOP lunacy.

Just be aware. It's coming.