Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker (shown above left) on Friday faced often-hostile questions from lawmakers on the Left.
The House Judiciary Committee held the hearing to discuss oversight issues at the Department of Justice. Whitaker voluntarily appeared for the hearing, at which he was grilled and given little or no time to respond in some instances as lawmakers lit into him with accusations.
They questioned him on an array of issues — from the special counsel investigation to financial records going several years back.
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House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) opened up the hearing by asking why President Donald Trump picked Whitaker in the first place — and why Whitaker didn’t recuse himself from the special counsel probe.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) (shown above right) later pressed him on a policy to fight illegal immigration that related to the separation of migrant families.
“Our country is still reeling from the family separations that occurred at the border,” Jayapal declared. “Most of these women, most of these men, were seeking asylum, and your department — instead of allowing them their legal right to seek asylum — your department instead imposed a zero humanity policy to prosecute them in mass proceedings, resulting in the government tearing apart thousands of children from their moms and dads, and this is still happening.”
Jayapal then asked whether he was former Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ chief of staff at the time of the family separation policy. But Whitaker pushed back by reminding her there was no family separation policy — but rather a zero-tolerance policy. That policy was to crack down on illegal immigration and illegitimate asylum claims but it ended up resulting in the separation of children from adults.
The Department of Homeland Security oversees agencies that deal with immigration. When the children were separated, they were transferred to the Department of Health and Human Services to be cared for, as Whitaker reminded the lawmakers multiple times on Friday.
“I’m just going to tell you that you were his chief of staff at the time,” Jayapal said. “Last month Sen. [Jeff] Merkley released a leaked draft memo by senior officials at the Department of Justice and Homeland Security outlining policies to separate children from their families. Were you aware of this memo at the time?”
When Whitaker asked her to clarify which memo she meant, Jayapal pushed back by questioning why someone who had been the chief of staff for the attorney general wouldn’t be aware of such a memo.
During a different hearing on Thursday, U.S. Government Accountability Office acting director Kathryn Larin testified that agencies weren’t given notice and thus were unprepared for the onslaught of separated children.
“The memo stated that a policy of criminally prosecuting parents would require close coordination between DHS and the Department of Health and Human Services,” Jayapal said. “And yet a report released by the Government Accountability Office last October says that DHS and HHS were ‘unaware’ that your former boss’s zero-tolerance prosecution policy memo was coming. Is it correct that the Department of Justice provided no advance notice to those departments?”
Whitaker was about to talk about the department’s policy but she interrupted him and told him to give a yes or no answer. He reminded her that they conducted a press conference with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement leaders when announcing the policy.
Trump eventually backed away from the policy amid mounting political pressure with an executive order in June 2018. The president has since made migrants applying for asylum wait on the other side of the southern border while their claims are processed. He has secured the border with additional border patrol personnel and military support as well.
Whitaker also noted that all the policy means is that they’ll take every referral by DHS — but he was interrupted again before he could finish his point. Jayapal then went into detail on some of the findings in the report, such as how officials at the agency were not given time to prepare before the policy was announced. She asked whether he was suggesting officials were lying in the report.
“No, I’m not going to suggest that anyone wasn’t telling the truth,” Whitaker said. “What I’m saying is when we publicly announced the zero-tolerance policy, it was pursuant to a public event.”
Jayapal continued to push on whether agency officials were given notice before the policy was announced publicly. She asked whether the department was tracking migrant parents who were being prosecuted; he said they weren’t when he was there.
Many migrants who are caught crossing the border illegally into the United States then claim asylum. Under previous administrations, illegal immigrants were often released a short time after claiming asylum. They were asked to return for a court date to determine their claims — but there was no guarantee they would show up.
Many of these individuals have children with them; but the process to access asylum claims can usually take longer than officials are allowed to hold children. The Department of Homeland Security explained in February 2018 that the problem stems from a settlement agreement in 1997. The agreement put strict restrictions on holding a child for more than 20 days.
House Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Doug Collins (R-Ga.) bashed the hearing earlier on for being misleading and an attack against the president and his attorney general pick. He also argued that the hearing itself was pointless, as former Attorney General William Barr has been working his way through a confirmation process and will likely be voted into office next week.
Since his selection as acting attorney general, Whitaker has faced criticism because of the special counsel investigation against the president. Democrats have expressed concerns about why Trump would pick someone who has publicly expressed opposition to the investigation.
He also did not recuse himself from the special counsel probe.
Special counsel Robert Mueller has been looking into possible crimes committed by the president or his associates during the 2016 presidential campaign with a particular focus on Russian collusion. Trump has accused the special counsel probe of being the single greatest “witch hunt” in the country’s history.
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