The Justice Department told the House Judiciary Committee Thursday afternoon that acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker will not appear at Friday's closely-watched oversight hearing unless he receives a written assurance by 6 p.m. ET Thursday that he will not be served with the subpoena the committee pre-emptively authorized to use if he avoids questions.
In this February 5, 2019, photo, acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, center, and acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, right, and members of President Donald Trump's cabinet arrive to attend the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Whitaker's move came shortly after the House Judiciary Committee voted along party lines to give its chairman the authority to subpoena Whitaker's testimony, should he fail to appear or answer lawmakers' questions. Nadler noted, "The committee can and should expect a direct answer to any question".
Tensions escalated after the panel approved a tentative subpoena in case Whitaker doesn't appear or answer questions.
Nadler said in his statement that the committee granted him with subpoena power to show that with Democrats in power, Congress would no longer allow "government witnesses to dodge uncomfortable questions". The president fired his first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, the day after the 2018 midterm elections.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement that "the fact Chairman Nadler would try to force the public disclosure of private conversations that he knows are protected by law proves he only wants to play politics".
"I remain willing to appear to testify tomorrow, provided that the Chairman assures me that the Committee will not issue a subpoena today or tomorrow, and that the Committee will engage in good faith negotiations before taking such a step down the road", Whitaker said.
Before he goes, Democrats who perceive Whitaker as a Trump loyalist are likely to ask him whether he's made any commitments to the president about special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation and whether he has shared with Trump any inside information.
Asked about Whitaker testifying before Congress, President Donald Trump called Whitaker an "outstanding person" and said he would do very well should he testify.
Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker's scheduled appearance before the House Judiciary Committee on Friday is still uncertain as the Department of Justice exchanges letters with the panel over whether Whitaker might be subpoenaed.
"Rather than conducting appropriate oversight into the department's programs and activities, the committee evidently seeks to ask questions about confidential presidential communications that no attorney general could ever be expected to disclose under the circumstances", Boyd wrote. Later, Nadler tweeted that Whitaker had agreed to show up.
Republicans on the committee also strongly opposed Nadler's resolution to approve a subpoena if necessary.
"This subpoena is nothing short of political theater", said the ranking Republican, Rep. Douglas A. Collins (Ga.). "The message to witnesses here is, if you make the time and effort to appear of your own accord, Democrats are going to subpoena you anyway".
In a separate letter sent to Nadler, Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd demanded a response on the subpoena question.