By Andy Sullivan, Susan Heavey and Sarah N. Lynch
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 focused on his oversight of a probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
Whitaker, Trump's pick to temporarily fill the top Justice Department position, 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 appeared before the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee, 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 Jeff Sessions as attorney general in November.
Trump's decision to name Whitaker acting attorney general sparked controversy given that he now directly oversees Mueller's probe, which he has publicly criticized in the past.
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.
In a political drama that enfolded on Thursday, 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.
Justice Department ethics officials recommended Whitaker recuse himself from overseeing the Russia investigation, a step he chose not to take.
"Mr. Whitaker, like everyone else at the Department of Justice, you are entitled to your political opinions," Nadler said at the start of Friday's hearing.
"But when career officials at the department recommended that you take steps to mitigate your apparent conflicts of interest, Mr. Whitaker -- when they told you that your public criticism of the special counsel was bad for the department and bad for the administration of justice, you ignored them."
'BRING YOUR POPCORN'
Congressman Doug Collins, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, blasted Democrats for their handling of the subpoena drama.
He accused them of character assassination, said the subpoena battle was a "complete waste of time," and suggested the hearing was political theatre.
"Bring your popcorn," he said.
Whitaker's appointment also raised legal questions, prompted court challenges, and renewed scrutiny of his past business practices.
Hours before the hearing on Friday, Nadler and Democratic heads of several other House panels renewed a 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.
Trump has since nominated William Barr as attorney general. Barr is expected to face a Senate confirmation vote next week.
(Reporting by Andy Sullivan, Sarah N. Lynch and Susan Heavey; Editing by Paul Simao and Alistair Bell)