Russia probe chief grilled by lawmakers

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Acting US Attorney General Matthew Whitaker has said he has not spoken to the president or any senior White House staff about the Russia inquiry.

Mr Whitaker, who oversees Robert Mueller’s inquiry into alleged Trump campaign ties with Russia, was grilled by lawmakers in a hearing on Friday.

He said he had not taken any action to interfere “in any way” with the probe.

The hearing came after a dispute over whether he could be forced to disclose his conversations with the president.

“I have not talked to the president of the United States about the special counsel investigation,” Mr Whitaker, President Donald Trump’s pick to temporarily fill the top Justice Department role, told the House Judiciary Committee.

He also added there had been “no change in the overall management” of the investigation.

“I have and will continue to manage this investigation in a manner that is consistent with the governing regulations,” he said in his opening remarks.

The hearing came after the committee’s Democratic leadership and Mr Whitaker’s team sparred on Thursday night over whether Mr Whitaker – who leads the US Department of Justice – would appear for the hearing.

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Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler was the first to grill Mr Whitaker

The dispute came amid reports that Democrat and committee chairman Jerrold Nadler was planning to subpoena Mr Whitaker to testify about his interactions with President Donald Trump.

Mr Whitaker is due to be replaced by William Barr after a senate confirmation hearing in the coming weeks.

‘Dog and pony show’

Republicans, who until recently led the committee, complained on Friday that the hearing was a “dog and pony” show intended to discredit the Republican president.

“I’m thinking maybe we just set up a popcorn machine in the back,” said Georgia Congressman Doug Collins, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, as the hearing began.

After opening statements Mr Collins called a vote on the motion to dismiss the hearing before questions had even begun, but it failed to pass.

During a testy exchange with Democratic Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, Mr Whitaker at one point responded: “Mr Chairman, it appears that your five minutes is up,” triggering tense laughter in the chamber.

The Russia investigation into Trump campaign ties and possible obstruction of justice has been highly politicised since Mr Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey in May 2017.

Ethics officials at the justice department had called upon Mr Whitaker to recuse himself from the probe, as his predecessor Jeff Sessions had done, but he refused.

“You decided that your private interest in overseeing this particular investigation – and perhaps others from which you should have been recused – was more important than the integrity of the department,” Congressman Nadler told him as the hearing began.

Why is Mr Whitaker controversial?

Mr Trump fired his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, in November 2018.

After Mr Whitaker, the former chief of staff to Mr Sessions, was temporarily appointed to the position, it emerged he had written several op-eds that were sharply critical of Mr Mueller’s probe.

Mr Whitaker wrote for CNN in August 2017 that the investigation was “dangerously close to crossing” a “red line”.

He argued that questions about Mr Trump’s business interests were outside the special counsel’s scope, and said: “[Mr Mueller] is only authorised to investigate matters that involved any potential links to and coordination between two entities – the Trump campaign and the Russian government.”

Moscow has denied attempting to meddle in the 2016 presidential campaign, and Mr Trump has also repeatedly denied any campaign collusion with Russia.

Since Democrats took control of the House last month, they have launched several congressional inquiries into Mr Trump’s business dealings and his actions as president.

Democrats on the Ways and Means committee have taken the first step to obtain Mr Trump’s tax returns, which he refused to publicly release during the 2016 campaign.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff has also announced a sweeping investigation into Mr Trump’s actions as president, and has hired former White House staff members to aid in the probe.

Mr Trump has denounced the swirling investigations as “presidential harassment”.

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