By Sarah N. Lynch, Andy Sullivan and Susan Heavey
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Acting U.S. Attorney General Matthew Whitaker said on Friday he would decline to answer questions about his communications with President Donald Trump at a congressional hearing expected to focus on his oversight of a probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
Whitaker, Trump’s unorthodox pick to temporarily fill the top Justice Department position left vacant by the departure of Jeff Sessions, will invoke executive privilege in declining to discuss “the contents of deliberations or conversations with the president,” according to his prepared testimony.
The acting attorney general, who was due to testify before the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee on Friday morning, also said there had been no change in the overall management of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.
Democrats, who took control of the House last month and are increasing oversight of the Trump administration, want to shine a light on any actions Whitaker took regarding Mueller’s probe, including communications with the White House and the firing of Sessions as attorney general in November.
Whitaker had threatened not to appear at the hearing after the committee chairman, Representative Jerry Nadler, and other Democrats said they might use a subpoena to compel him to answer certain questions.
Late Thursday night, Nadler agreed to drop the threat, paving the way for Whitaker’s appearance before the panel.
Trump’s decision to name Whitaker acting attorney general sparked immediate controversy given his public criticism of Mueller’s probe and the attorney general’s position directly overseeing the investigation.
Justice Department ethics officials recommended Whitaker recuse himself, a step he chose not to take.
Russia has denied any meddling in the 2016 presidential election. Trump has repeatedly said there was no collusion between his campaign and Russia and has called Mueller’s investigation a witch hunt.
PAST BUSINESS PRACTICES
Whitaker’s appointment also raised legal questions, prompted court challenges, and renewed scrutiny of Whitaker’s past business practices.
Trump has since nominated William Barr as attorney general. Barr is expected to face a Senate confirmation vote next week.
Hours before the hearing on Friday, Nadler and Democratic heads of several other House panels renewed their call for Whitaker to produce documents regarding his prior work with the company World Patent Marketing.
In a letter, the heads of the House Oversight and Reform, Energy and Commerce, Judiciary and Intelligence committees said new records showed Whitaker did not return money to consumers who had complained about the company’s practices.
They also sought documents about the department’s recent decision regarding online gambling, citing campaign donations from casino executives to Whitaker’s campaign years after he ended an unsuccessful U.S. Senate bid.
Representatives for the Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment on the letters.
House Democrats have also launched a series of other hearings in recent days examining Trump and his administration, including the president’s tax returns and his immigration policies.
(Writing by Susan Heavey; Editing by Paul Simao)