WASHINGTON — The acting attorney general, Matthew G. Whitaker, told lawmakers on Thursday that he would not testify before the House Judiciary Committee on Friday as scheduled without a written assurance that lawmakers would not issue a subpoena for his testimony during the hearing.
On Thursday morning, the committee voted to give its chairman, Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, the authority to subpoena Mr. Whitaker if he did not answer questions during the hearing or if he chose not to show up.
The subpoena was approved along party lines.
“I hope not to have to use the subpoena,” Mr. Nadler, a Democrat, said Thursday. “Unfortunately a series of troubling events over the last few months suggest that we should be prepared.”
Representative Doug Collins of Georgia, the committee’s ranking Republican, called the subpoena “political theater.” In a statement, Mr. Whitaker agreed.
“The committee now has deviated from historic practice and protocol and taken the unnecessary and premature step of authorizing a subpoena to the me,” Mr. Whitaker said, adding: “Political theater is not the purpose of an oversight hearing, and I will not allow that to be the case.”
And the Justice Department balked.
“We seek a written assurance from your office that the committee will not issue a subpoena to the acting attorney general on or before February 8, and that the committee will engage in good faith negotiations with the department before issuing such a subpoena,” the Justice Department wrote in a letter to Mr. Nadler.
Democrats want to ask Mr. Whitaker about matters related to the Russia investigation led by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, and whether President Trump replaced his previous attorney general, Jeff Sessions, with Mr. Whitaker in order to interfere with that inquiry.
The letter to the committee has raised the possibility that Mr. Whitaker will refuse to attend the hearing, and not testify before William P. Barr is confirmed as the next attorney general. The Senate Judiciary Committee voted Thursday along party lines to send Mr. Barr’s confirmation to the full Senate.