Congressman Hakeem Jeffries shakes his open hand at acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker in a small white room in Washington and tells him, “in your final week, keep your hands off the Mueller investigation.” Jeffries, who represents Brooklyn and once brought a poster of Biggie Smalls to the floor of the House of Representatives, was among the troop of 24 Democrats who took turns setting fire to one of Whitaker’s last days overseeing the Department of Justice. The line about protecting the Mueller probe was the final match Jeffries struck before his five minutes of questioning expired.
Over a stretch of six hours on Friday, the shaved-head Whitaker sat at a wooden table before the representatives and listened to questions that ranged from his tweets and frequent CNN appearances to the Trump administration’s policy of separating families at the Mexican border. His name was printed on a piece of paper and set in front of him, and bottles of Deer Park water were placed by his right hand.
It is important to write that Whitaker listened to questions because he didn’t spend so much time answering questions. Jeffries began his five minutes by wondering aloud how Whitaker, who carries a long but unimpressive resume, became the most powerful law enforcement official in the United States. But most of the other Democrats began their five minutes by pleading Whitaker to answer their questions with a yes or no instead of dodging like a boxer on the ropes with the bell nearing its toll.
Rep. Jamie Raskin told Playboy that it appeared that Whitaker had been “coached to run out the clock” and that the Trump official “took yes or no questions and rode off into the sunset with them.”
There were several lines of questioning that descended into shouting matches. In one such series, Whitaker got testy with Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland as the congressman was asking his witness about his tenure running a shady charity and, instead of answering, the acting attorney general responded “you have challenged my character.” Raskin shot back “this is my time, Mr. Whitaker,” adding later “you don’t run this committee.” Their argument was cooled off only by the pounding of the chairman's gavel.
In a phone call later, Raskin lamented to Playboy that his questions remained unanswered. He said that it appeared that Whitaker had been “coached to run out the clock” and that the Trump official “took yes or no questions and rode off into the sunset with them.”
Raskin’s complaints were typical for the committee members who pushed Whitaker and got nowhere. In the opening minutes of the hearing, Whitaker refused to answer Chairman Nadler’s question by telling him “I see your five minutes are up.” That defiance set the tone for his behavior.
Matt Whitaker’s tenure leading the Justice Department most reminds us of that Macbeth speech, in that it was a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury and signifying nothing. There were no large developments while he led the department, he did not implement any policies that pushed the nation forward or backward. He didn’t push Robert Mueller out of his post as the special counsel, and he also oversaw the family separation policy that the Trump Administration used to devastate the lives of immigrants coming across the border. When Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal asked Whitaker about the policy during the Friday hearing, he denied that such a policy exists, saying instead that the Trump Administration has a “zero tolerance” policy on illegal immigration.
That confrontation between Jayapal, who co-chairs the Progressive Caucus, and Whitaker was particularly chilling. The questioning came at the end of the hearing, after Whitaker had put on his filibuster show for hours. Jayapal asked the acting attorney general “do you know what kind of damage has been done to children and families across this country, children who will never get to see their parents again—do you understand the magnitude of that?”
The Trump official’s response was so cold that it ran goosebumps up my spine. He answered, “I understand the policy of zero tolerance.” The administration has a long history of dismissing the destruction of immigrant lives as simply the consequences of policy initiatives, but Friday was the first time that I have seen humanity coolly disregarded in the eyes of an administration official.
Matt Whitaker’s next career path hasn’t yet been decided, but if he was hoping to move into a role in the White House or in one of the Trump-friendly organizations that speckle Washington, he couldn’t have made a better appearance. Whenever he was questioned about his conversations with the president, he declined to answer, further indicating to Trump that Whitaker is willing to be one of his loyalists.