The top Democrat and Republican on the House Judiciary Committee disagreed Wednesday over what exactly former acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker told them behind closed doors regarding his conversations with President Donald Trump — and the public may never know for sure what was actually said.
“There’s no transcript [of the meeting], and there will be no transcript,” said a legal counsel for Georgia Rep. Doug Collins, the top Republican on the panel.
The no-transcript caveat was one of the ground rules for the high-stakes meeting that was negotiated by Whitaker’s legal team and Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler and his legal team to follow up Whitaker’s public testimony in February. Committee Republicans had no say in determining ground rules for the second meeting.
Nadler indicated to reporters after the meeting Wednesday — which lasted roughly an hour — that Whitaker’s follow-up comments did little to allay his concerns that Whitaker misled the full committee during his public testimony in February, when he refused to answer a question from Nadler about whether he and Trump had discussed the case against his former personal lawyer Michael Cohen in the Southern District of New York.
Media outlets have reported that Trump expressed frustration to Whitaker following the release of a court memo last December that implicated the president in a campaign finance crime for directing Cohen to pay off two of his boss's former mistresses.
“Unlike in the hearing room, Mr. Whitaker did not deny that the president called him to discuss the Michael Cohen case and personnel decisions in the Southern District,” Nadler told reporters after the meeting.
Collins and his staff who were present at the meeting Wednesday said that was an unfair characterization of Whitaker’s words.
Whitaker “said he did not talk with the president about Mr. Cohen at all, and had no conversations with the Southern District of New York,” Collins told reporters.
But a staffer for the Georgia Republican who was also in the room and took notes during the meeting did not go that far.
According to Collins’ legal counsel, Whitaker said in the meeting that he “does not remember” any conversations with Trump regarding Cohen.
Whitaker said he would have remembered if the president had expressed frustration about the case, but that he doesn’t remember such a conversation ever taking place, according to the minority staff legal counsel.
'Our fears weren't borne out'
Ever since Whitaker was tapped to replace former Attorney General Jeff Sessions last fall, Democrats have held suspicions that Trump picked him over more qualified people to run the Justice Department as a way to curtail special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election or to deliver information about it to the White House.
Whitaker had been critical of the special counsel in radio interviews from before he worked for the DOJ and replaced Sessions.
Whitaker told the full committee at his public hearing in February that he and the president never discussed the Mueller investigation while he was serving as attorney general.
As AG, Whitaker declined to recuse himself from overseeing the probe, despite DOJ ethics experts suggesting that he should.
But Nadler himself told Whitaker Wednesday that he no longer feared Whitaker had tampered with Mueller's work or fed information to the president, according to one of the Republican counsels who attended the unrecorded meeting.
"As far as we know, our fears weren't borne out," Nadler said, according to the GOP counsel's notes.
The follow-up meeting Wednesday did create new concerns for Democrats, though, after Whitaker said he had raised questions with his staff at the DOJ about the scope of the Southern District of New York's case against Cohen.
Whitaker claimed, however, that he never brought those concerns to or spoke with anyone at to the SDNY office itself, the GOP counsel on Collins' staff said.
Whitaker thought the campaign finance angle against Cohen was "specious," according to Republican staff at the meeting.
Cohen pleaded guilty last year to circumventing campaign finance laws when he paid pornographic actress Stormy Daniels $130,000 in hush money before the 2016 election so that the story wouldn't derail Trump's campaign. Cohen has said — and the special counsel alleged in a court memo last December — that "Individual 1," who is Trump, directed Cohen to make those payments and hatched a plan to reimburse him.
Trump initially denied any knowledge of those payments and reimbursements. But Cohen brought a bank check to an Oversight Committee hearing in February that shows Trump's signature and is dated February 2017, when Trump was president. The $35,000 check was part of a 12-month reimbursement plan for Cohen, who paid Daniels with his own money in 2016, the former Trump lawyer has said.
Whitaker also told Nadler and Collins Wednesday that he had discussions with his staff about firing certain federally appointed district attorneys. No one in the SDNY office was part of those discussions, Whitaker said.
The former acting AG defended those discussions, saying they occur regularly "under any attorney general," according to those present at the meeting.
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