Act­ing AG seen as un­likely to re­cuse him­self in Rus­sia in­quiry

Centre Daily Times - - Obituaries - BY DE­VLIN BAR­RETT, MATT ZA­PO­TO­SKY AND JOSH DAWSEY

WASH­ING­TON Act­ing at­tor­ney gen­eral Matthew Whi­taker has no in­ten­tion of re­cus­ing him­self from over­see­ing the spe­cial-coun­sel probe of Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence in the 2016 elec­tion, ac­cord­ing to peo­ple close to him who added they do not be­lieve he would ap­prove any sub­poena of Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump as part of that in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Since step­ping into his new role Wed­nes­day, Whi­taker has faced ques­tions – prin­ci­pally from Democrats – about whether he should re­cuse him­self from the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion, given that he has writ­ten opin­ion pieces about the in­ves­ti­ga­tion and is a friend and po­lit­i­cal ally of a grand jury wit­ness. On Thurs­day, two peo­ple close to Whi­taker said he does not plan to take him­self off the Rus­sia case. They also said he is deeply skep­ti­cal of any ef­fort to force the pres­i­dent’s tes­ti­mony through a sub­poena. Spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller has been ne­go­ti­at­ing for months with Trump’s at­tor­neys over the terms of a pos­si­ble in­ter­view of the pres­i­dent. Cen­tral to those dis­cus­sions has been the idea that Mueller could, if ne­go­ti­a­tions failed, sub­poena the pres­i­dent. If Whi­taker were to take the threat of a sub­poena off the ta­ble, that could al­ter the equi­lib­rium be­tween the two sides and sig­nif­i­cantly re­duce the chances that the pres­i­dent ever sits for an in­ter­view. At the Jus­tice Depart­ment, ethics of­fi­cials typ­i­cally re­view the past work of se­nior lead­ers to see whether they have any fi­nan­cial or per­sonal con­flicts that would pre­clude them from over­see­ing par­tic­u­lar cases. In the past, se­nior Jus­tice Depart­ment of­fi­cials have tended to fol­low such ad­vice, but they are rarely re­quired to do so, ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cials fa­mil­iar with the process. “The con­sis­tent tra­di­tion, through ad­min­is­tra­tions of both po­lit­i­cal par­ties, has been for DOJ’s se­nior lead­ers to con­sult ca­reer ethics of­fi­cials on ques­tions of re­cusal,” said Matthew Ax­el­rod, a se­nior depart­ment of­fi­cial dur­ing the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion. “Here, to avoid ir­repara­ble dam­age to the in­sti­tu­tion’s in­tegrity, it is cru­cial that the nor­mal process be fol­lowed.” A Jus­tice Depart­ment spokes­woman de­clined to com­ment. Of­fi­cials there have said Whi­taker will fol­low the reg­u­lar pro­ce­dure in han­dling any ethics is­sues that arise. On Thurs­day evening, Demo­cratic at­tor­neys gen­eral for 17 states and the Dis­trict wrote to Whi­taker urg­ing him to re­cuse him­self from the Rus­sia probe. “As chief law en­force­ment of­fi­cers of our re­spec­tive states, we ask that you re­cuse your­self from any role in over­see­ing Spe­cial Coun­sel Robert Mueller’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion of Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence in the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion,” the Demo­cratic at­tor­neys gen­eral wrote. “Be­cause a rea­son­able per­son could ques­tion your im­par­tial­ity in the mat­ter, your re­cusal is nec­es­sary to main­tain pub­lic trust in the in­tegrity of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion and to pro­tect the es­sen­tial and long­stand­ing in­de­pen­dence of the Depart­ment you have been cho­sen to lead, on an act­ing ba­sis.” In 2014, Whi­taker chaired the cam­paign of Sam Clo­vis, a Repub­li­can can­di­date for Iowa state trea­surer. Clo­vis went on to work as a Trump cam­paign ad­viser and has be­come a wit­ness in the in­ves­ti­ga­tion by Mueller. The Jus­tice Depart­ment ad­vises em­ploy­ees that “gen­er­ally, an em­ployee should seek ad­vice from an ethics of­fi­cial be­fore par­tic­i­pat­ing in any mat­ter in which her im­par­tial­ity could be ques­tioned.” Reg­u­la­tions pro­hibit em­ploy­ees, “with­out writ­ten autho­riza­tion, from par­tic­i­pat­ing in a crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion or pros­e­cu­tion if he has a per­sonal or po­lit­i­cal re­la­tion­ship with any per­son or or­ga­ni­za­tion sub­stan­tially in­volved in the con­duct that is the sub­ject of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion or pros­e­cu­tion.” Clo­vis said Wed­nes­day that Whi­taker is a friend and that he texted con­grat­u­la­tions to Whi­taker on Wed­nes­day af­ter he be­came at­tor­ney gen­eral. The ques­tion for ethics of­fi­cials, if they are asked, would be whether Clo­vis would be con­sid­ered “sub­stan­tially in­volved” in the con­duct Mueller is in­ves­ti­gat­ing. The White House is un­con­cerned about Whi­taker’s pre­vi­ous com­ments, a se­nior White House of­fi­cial said. He was at the White House on Thurs­day af­ter­noon for a meet­ing on im­mi­gra­tion.

CHAR­LIE NEIBERGALL AP

Matt Whi­taker, the new act­ing US at­tor­ney gen­eral re­plac­ing Jeff Ses­sions, has writ­ten opin­ion pieces about the spe­cial coun­sel’s Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion. He is a friend and po­lit­i­cal ally of a wit­ness.

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