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Political Speechwriters Weigh In On Acting Attorney General's Testimony


We're going to start the program today at the scene of yesterday's House Judiciary Committee hearing.


JAMIE RASKIN: You can ask the chairman for time, but I can't give you my time. Forgive me. We only have five minutes.

JOHN RATCLIFFE: I haven't seen you field a single question from the other side of the aisle about any of the enforcement priorities of the Department of Justice.

SHEILA JACKSON LEE: Mr. Attorney General, we're not joking here. And your humor is not acceptable.

HAKEEM JEFFRIES: We're all trying to figure out, who are you, where did you come from and how the heck did you become the head of the Department of Justice?

RATCLIFFE: Simple question, Mr. Whitaker - are there names - specific American names - mentioned in this redacted - 70 percent redacted...

STEVE COHEN: Would you say special - the special counsel's investigation is a witch hunt? Are you overseeing a witch hunt?

MATTHEW WHITAKER: Congressman, as I've mentioned previously, the special counsel's investigation is an ongoing investigation.

MARTIN: Those are just a few of the combative moments yesterday during the hours that acting U.S. Attorney General Matthew Whitaker testified before the House Judiciary Committee. In his opening remarks, Georgia's Doug Collins, the committee's ranking Republican, attempted to adjourn the hearing after criticizing Democrats for political theatricals.


DOUG COLLINS: We're going to have plenty of theatrics. Bring your popcorn. I'm thinking about maybe we just set up a popcorn machine in the back because that's what this has become. It's becoming a show.

MARTIN: So we wanted to understand what both parties were trying to accomplish at that hearing, so we've invited Mary Kate Cary. She's a former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush. She's now a senior fellow for presidential studies at the University of Virginia's Miller Center.

Mary Kate, welcome back.

MARY KATE CARY: Thanks for having me back.

MARTIN: We're also joined in studio by Paul Orzulak. He is a former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, and he's a founding partner of West Wing Writers.

Paul, welcome back to you as well.

PAUL ORZULAK: Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: OK. So let's just try to understand what's been going on here. We just heard a clip from Congressman Doug Collins criticizing the hearings as a show. Mary Kate, what was the Republican strategy going into this hearing?

CARY: Well, this was an oversight hearing, Michel - not an investigation hearing, not a confirmation hearing. And usually, you get asked all kinds of questions about the different policies that the department was overseeing. And so instead, they sent questions in advance to the acting attorney general that were specific to the Mueller probe. And that's when the fireworks started.

And so I think the Republican strategy shifted from your usual oversight hearing to how to best handle questions about the Mueller probe. And as you probably know, Whitaker has only been acting attorney general for a few months and really has not had much involvement with the Mueller probe at all.

MARTIN: So William Barr is the president's pick for the next attorney general. He was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday. The Senate is expected to confirm him this upcoming week. So, Paul, with William Barr's expected confirmation, how much does this hearing actually matter? Why make him testify in the first place?

ORZULAK: I think the point of all this - there's one goal of this whole thing - to make sure Robert Mueller can do his job and finish his investigation without any undue influence or interference from the outside. The acting attorney general - while he's only been in the position for a few months, he's been briefed on the Mueller investigation. The point of the yesterday's hearing was to ask, did you pass along any information to the president or his team from that investigation at any point? Yes or no - get him on record saying yes or no. And he said no. And then, you know, the questioning was largely about, did others?

But the point was to say - protect the integrity of the investigation and not have any outside influence from within the department. You know, the - he can fire Mueller if he wants. It's - it feels like we've crossed that bridge, and Bill Barr has already said he's going to let the investigation play out.

MARTIN: So was it about getting Whitaker on the record...


MARTIN: ...On certain issues? Was it also about sending a message to the Trump administration that the Democrats have this kind of authority and are prepared to use it?

ORZULAK: Yeah. I think, from - there are different goals for both sides. I think Matthew Whitaker passed his audition yesterday for the president. I think he had an audience of one and showed that he could be as confrontational as the president when it comes to Democrats. I wouldn't be surprised to see him in the conversation about chief of staff after he's gone. But from the Democratic side, it's just to remind the president of what James Wilson in Pennsylvania said, one of our Founding Fathers - the Congress are the grand inquisitors of the realm. That's their role - checks and balances, balance of powers. The president hasn't had that for two years. He has it now.

MARTIN: What do you think about that, Mary Kate? Do you think it was about getting specific information on the record? Do you also - you think it was about sending a message that the Democrats are prepared to use their oversight authority? What do you think?

CARY: Yeah. I think this was a curtain-opener for what we're going to see with Democratic control of the House. And the amount of needling and contentiousness I think is what makes good people not want to serve in public service. And it turns voters off to what's going on in D.C. And if you look - you know, I was taking notes as I was watching. And if you look at the list of things that he said, Whitaker said under oath, it was, you know, I have not talked to the president about the Mueller investigation. I have been briefed. I have not changed its course. I have not taken any action. I have not interfered in any way. I will continue to manage the investigation consistent with the governing regulations.

I mean, he couldn't have been more clear that he had nothing to give them. And yet, the tone just kept getting worse and worse. And, like I said, this is what makes good people not want to serve. And I think we're to see a lot more of this going forward.

MARTIN: So finally, for both of you, President Trump referred to these oversight hearings during State of the Union as, quote, "ridiculous partisan investigations" - unquote. And he tweeted, the Dems and their committees are going nuts. The Republicans never did this to President Obama. But, of course, there were many investigations when the Republicans were in charge of the Congress - I mean, Benghazi, Hillary Clinton's emails, the program known as Fast and Furious.

So, to both of you, is there something different about this moment? I mean, assuming that you're not a hyper-partisan figure, is there something different about this moment? Let's say - like, who did I start with? I started with Mary Kate, so I'm going to give Paul the last word. So Mary Kate, I'll go to you first on this.

CARY: (Laughter) Thank you. I - what's different here, Michel, is you're right. There were investigations of Obama and previous presidents. But this was an oversight hearing that sounded like an investigation. And if you look at the list, there are upcoming hearings - oversight hearings for Steve Mnuchin at Treasury, for Wilbur Ross at Commerce, for Kirstjen Nielsen at DHS. And I think we should certainly expect to see more fireworks as these oversight hearings morph into sort of the tone of an investigation when they're not.

MARTIN: And Paul?

ORZULAK: It goes with the territory. Every party in power has an oversight role and will make miserable the life of the administration. It goes with the territory. But let's remember, this is about answering the question whether president and states helped a foreign power interfere with the 2016 election. It's an investigation that's already led to indictments or guilty pleas from 34 people and three companies. We just need to let this play out. This is about protecting the integrity of that investigation and letting them figure out what happened here. All the rest is noise.

MARTIN: That was Mary Kate Cary, Senior Fellow - I'm sorry, let me start with Paul. That was Paul Orzulak, co-founder of West Wing Writers, former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton. And also with us, Mary Kate Cary, senior fellow for Presidential Studies at UVA and former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush.

We thank you both so much for talking to us.

ORZULAK: Pleasure to be here. Thanks, Michel.

CARY: Thanks for having us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.