House Democrats vowed Sunday that one of their first investigative priorities with a new majority will be to probe President Trump’s appointment of acting attorney general Matthew Whitaker — and subpoena Mr. Whitaker if necessary.
Democrats said they wouldn’t go overboard and downplayed talk of impeaching Mr. Trump himself — but said the nature of Mr. Whitaker’s appointment and his past critical comments of special counsel Robert Mueller warrant a closer look.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, who is in line to chair the House Judiciary Committee, says the panel plans to summon Mr. Whitaker immediately to testify about Mr. Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 elections.
“That investigation is of utmost importance in making sure that we adhere to the rule of law and that the administration is held accountable,” the New York Democrat said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “We will certainly hold hearings on that.”
“Our very first witness after Jan. 3 — we will summon, if necessary subpoena, Mr. Whitaker,” he said.
Democrats have pointed to Mr. Whitaker’s past criticism of Mr. Mueller’s probe and suggestion that the Justice Department could effectively shut it down by withholding the necessary appropriations.
Some critics, including George Conway, the husband of White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, have also suggested the appointment of Mr. Whitaker — who had been chief of staff to ousted Attorney General Jeff Sessions — is invalid since Mr. Whitaker was not confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
“There’s bipartisan editorializing that he should never have been appointed and that it does violence to the Constitution and the vision of our Founders to appoint such a person in such a manner to be the chief legal officer in our country,” House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
Mrs. Pelosi and other Democratic leaders on Sunday released a letter to the Justice Department’s chief ethics officer asking whether it would be appropriate for Mr. Whitaker to recuse himself from any matters involving the Russia probe.
Senate Democratic Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York said his party might try to attach legislation to must-pass spending bills that would prevent Mr. Whitaker from interfering with the Mueller investigation.
“He’s already prejudged the Mueller situation. If he stays there, he will create a constitutional crisis by inhibiting Mueller or firing Mueller, so Congress has to act,” Mr. Schumer said on “State of the Union.”
Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican, announced her support late last week for legislation that would protect Mr. Mueller from being ousted by Mr. Trump or Mr. Whitaker.
But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has expressed skepticism that formal legislation shielding Mr. Mueller is necessary, and other Republicans defended Mr. Whitaker on Sunday.
“I think he was appropriately appointed legally. I don’t think he has to recuse himself,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, said on “Face the Nation.” “You don’t recuse somebody because they have opinions different than the people they’re overseeing.”
Ms. Conway said Mr. Whitaker’s past comments about the Mueller probe occurred when he was a private citizen and there’s no reason to think he’d oversee the Justice Department in a biased way.
“It would be a mistake to try to shut down the Mueller investigation in the way that you describe it because we’ve been so compliant,” she said on “Fox News Sunday.” “If there’s proof of collusion, we’re waiting to look at the final report.”
Mr. Trump has expressed concern that House Democrats will go overboard in conducting investigations of the administration, but Mrs. Pelosi and other Democrats on Sunday vowed that they would go where the facts lead them in conducting oversight of the executive branch.
“We are responsible. We are not scattershot,” Mrs. Pelosi said. “We are not doing any investigation for a political purpose, but to seek the truth. So I think a word that you could describe about how Democrats will go forward in this regard is we will be very strategic.”
Mrs. Pelosi, who said she hopes Democrats won’t have to subpoena the Justice Department to try to make public Mr. Mueller’s final report on Russian interference in the 2016 election.
“Let us hope not but the Congress — the beauty of our Constitution is the system of checks and balances,” she said. “And in doing so to have oversight responsibility, to be a check. So in our oversight responsibilities we would want that information.”
Mr. Nadler said impeaching Mr. Trump himself is a question that would potentially come up down the road depending on the findings of Mr. Mueller’s investigation and other probes.
“We’re far from that right now,” he said.
He also said he has no intentions of trying to impeach U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh for purported perjury during his confirmation hearings.