Justice News

Opening Statement of Acting Attorney General Matthew G. Whitaker Before the House Judiciary Committee
Washington, DC
United States
Friday, February 8, 2019

Thank you, Mr. Chairman and Ranking Member Collins for the opportunity to testify before the Committee today.  I am looking forward to discussing with you some of the accomplishments and priorities of the Department of Justice. Before I start, I would also like to acknowledge the passing of Chairman Dingell. He was a statesman and a leader and it is a sad day in this committee, I am sure. 

First of all, let me say that it is an honor to represent the 115,000 men and women of the Department of Justice.  The Department is blessed with extremely talented, highly principled public servants who are dedicated to upholding our great Constitution and the laws of the United States.

I saw that up close during my five and a half years as United States Attorney for the Southern District of Iowa.  Our office put criminals behind bars and we kept the people of Iowa safe. 

I personally prosecuted several important criminal cases and worked with men and women from the ATF, DEA, FBI, the U.S. Marshals Service, and our state and local partners.  It was a privilege.

In 2017, I returned to the Department and served for 13 months as Chief of Staff to former Attorney General Jeff Sessions—a man for whom I have the greatest respect. He led the Department with integrity, with dedication to the rule of law, and with a commitment to carrying out the policies of the President.  I am deeply honored that the President selected me to continue this work at the Department. 

The Senate will soon consider the President’s nomination for our next Attorney General.  And let me just say this: no one is more qualified than Bill Barr.  I am working to ensure that he will inherit a strong, confident, and effective Department of Justice.  And I believe that he will.

For the last three months, I have had the privilege of serving as Acting Attorney General, and I am impressed every single day by the dedication and the hard work of our agents, attorneys and support staff.  Over this time, I have visited a number of our offices and met with federal prosecutors from across America.  For example, in December, we held our Project Safe Neighborhoods conference – where employees from nearly every U.S. Attorney’s office and hundreds of state and local partners celebrated our successes and reductions in violent crime.

Our hard work is paying off.  I firmly believe that your constituents are safer because of the work that we have done over these past two years.

Under this Administration, crime is down—and police morale is up.

In Fiscal Year 2017, the Justice Department charged the largest number of violent crime defendants since we started to track this category back when Bill Barr was Attorney General.  And then, in Fiscal Year 2018, we broke that record again—by a margin of nearly 15 percent.  We also charged more defendants with gun crimes than ever before.  In fact, we broke that record by a margin of 17 percent.  The Department has also banned bump stocks, improved the background check system, and prosecuted those who lied to get a gun. 

Our work is having an impact.  In 2017—after two years of increases under the previous Administration—violent crime and homicide rates went down nationwide.  We do not have official numbers yet for 2018, but one estimate projected that the murder rate in our 29 biggest cities would drop by 7.6 percent.  Those are real lives being saved. 

Much of the crime in this country is related to drug abuse.  But under this Administration, prescriptions for the seven most frequently abused prescription drugs are down more than 21 percent, to the lowest level in at least a decade.  At the same time, the DEA has lowered the legal limits on production of the active ingredients in these prescription opioids by 47 percent since 2016.

But there is no doubt in the law enforcement community that the vast majority of the illegal drugs in this country are coming over our Southern border. 

There is also no doubt that criminals and cartels seek to exploit weaknesses in our southern border for their own profits and purposes—including by subjecting women and children to dangerous and unspeakable conditions in an attempt to smuggle them into the United States. And of course, the dangers of our porous southern border become all the more apparent every time an illegal alien causes harm or death to innocent Americans across this country—such as what happened to an outstanding young woman from my home state of Iowa, Sarah Root. 

For this reason and others, we continue our efforts to restore the rule of law at the border and in our immigration system.  In Fiscal Year 2018, we charged more defendants with illegal entry than in any year in American history.  In fact, we charged 85 percent more defendants with illegally entering America than we did in the previous year.  At the same time, we increased the number of felony illegal re-entry prosecutions by more than 38 percent.  Whatever our views on immigration policy, we should all be opposed to illegal immigration and we should support these efforts. 

The Department is also taking decisive action against human trafficking, both domestically and internationally.  Human traffickers, like other criminal enterprises, take advantage of our porous Southern Border to smuggle women and children into the United States to exploit them.  We are bringing prosecutions to dismantle transnational trafficking networks that lure victims across our borders and traffic them for profit.  Last year, the Department of Justice secured a record of 526 human trafficking convictions – a 5 percent increase over the previous year. 

The Department is also doing its part to aggressively prosecute hate crimes.  Under this Administration, we indicted 50 hate crime defendants and obtained 30 hate crime convictions in Fiscal Year 2018.

In November, the Department provided election monitoring at polling places around the country.  Our Civil Rights Division deployed personnel to 35 jurisdictions in 19 states to monitor for compliance with federal voting rights laws.  Our Public Integrity Section prosecutors served as subject matter experts for federal prosecutors and investigators nationwide, working with the FBI at the Strategic Information and Operations Center.

Over my time as Acting Attorney General, I have done everything in my power to continue regular order at the Department.  The Department has continued to make its law enforcement decisions based upon the facts and law of each individual case, in accordance with established Department practices, and independent of any outside interference.

At no time has the White House asked for, nor have I provided, any promises or commitments concerning the Special Counsel’s investigation, or any other investigation.  Since becoming Acting Attorney General, I have run the Department with fidelity to the law and to the Constitution. During my time as the leader of the Department of Justice, the Department has complied with the Special Counsel regulations, and there has been no change in how the Department has worked with the Special Counsel’s office.

Over the past day, the Department and the Committee have exchanged letters concerning the respective prerogatives of the Legislative and Executive Branches.  I am pleased that we were able to reach an agreement that allows me to appear here voluntarily.  I am pleased also that we agreed that each branch would seek to accommodate each other, and that if we have differences, we will try to work them out in good faith before resorting to subpoenas or other formal legal process.

I will answer the Committee’s questions today as best as I can, but I will continue the longstanding Executive Branch practice of not disclosing information that may be subject to executive privilege, such as the contents of conversations with the President.

As the Supreme Court has recognized, this executive privilege is “fundamental to the operation of Government and inextricably rooted in the separation of powers under the Constitution.”

I have spent nearly one third of my career in the Department of Justice, and I am personally committed to its success and its integrity. I hope that today’s hearing will be constructive and help us to partner together to achieve the priorities of the American people.  The men and women of this Department are proud of our accomplishments, but we know that Congress can help us achieve even more.  And as our agents and our prosecutors have shown again and again:  they deserve your support.

Thank you once again for the opportunity to testify today and for your attention to matters facing the Department of Justice.

Updated February 8, 2019