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Top Democrat warns acting U.S. attorney general about Russia probe

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Top Democrat warns acting U.S. attorney general about Russia probe
FILE PHOTO: Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker speaks to state and local law enforcement on efforts to combat violent crime and the opioid crisis in Des Moines, Iowa, U.S., November 14, 2018. REUTERS/Scott Morgan/File Photo   -   Copyright  Scott Morgan(Reuters)
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By Sarah N. Lynch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A top Democratic lawmaker warned U.S. Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker on Tuesday not to dodge questions about the Russia investigation when he testifies before the House Judiciary Committee, and provided him with a list of prepared questions before the congressional hearing.

In a letter to Whitaker, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler said the panel expects “direct answers” next month about his communications with White House officials, and added that he wants to be notified in advance if the White House plans to invoke executive privilege on the answers.

Nadler’s concerns were likely sparked by Whitaker’s predecessor, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who often declined to answer questions under oath citing executive privilege – even if President Donald Trump had not technically invoked that power.

“The committee will not accept your declining to answer any question on the theory that the President may want to invoke his privileges in the future,” Nadler wrote.

“Short of a direct and appropriate invocation of executive privilege, I will expect you to answer these questions fully and to the best of your knowledge,” he added.

A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment.

Whitaker has been under fire by Democrats since Trump appointed him in November to replace the ousted Sessions.

Many have voiced concern that Whitaker’s appointment violated the U.S. Constitution and represented an effort to undermine Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election and possible coordination with Trump campaign members.

Trump denies colluding with Moscow.

Prior to joining the Justice Department as Sessions’ chief of staff in 2017, Whitaker made comments raising skepticism about Mueller’s investigation.

Those comments, coupled with Whitaker’s friendship with Trump’s 2016 election co-chair Sam Clovis, have raised questions about whether Whitaker should recuse himself.

Career ethics lawyers at the Justice Department later advised Whitaker that he should consider recusing himself because it created the appearance of a conflict, but he declined to do so.

The Feb. 8 hearing with Whitaker will likely mark Democrats’ only chance to grill him about what, if any, involvement Whitaker has had in the Mueller investigation.

The U.S. Senate is widely expected to confirm William Barr as the new attorney general in the coming weeks.

Nadler said in his letter he expects Whitaker to be prepared to testify about his decision not to recuse himself from the Russia probe and to discuss whether he has received any briefings from Mueller.

He also wants to ask about how Trump chose him as acting attorney general and whether Trump ever lashed out at Whitaker after Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to lying to investigators.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Edioting by Tom Brown)

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