Attack dog now leads Justice
Sources: Whitaker to limit fallout of Mueller probe
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump first noticed Matthew Whitaker on CNN in the summer of 2017 and liked what he saw — a partisan defender who insisted there was no collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. So that July, the White House counsel, Donald McGahn, interviewed Whitaker about joining the president’s team as a legal attack dog against the special counsel, Robert Mueller.
At that point, the White House passed, leaving Whitaker, 49, to continue his media tour, writing on CNN’s website that Mueller’s investigation — which he had once called “crazy” — had gone too far.
Fifteen months later, the attack dog is in charge. With little ceremony Wednesday, Trump ousted Attorney General Jeff Sessions and put Whitaker, Sessions’ chief of staff, in charge of the Justice Department — and Mueller’s Russia investigation.
People close to Trump believe that he sent Whitaker to the department in part to limit the fallout from the Mueller investigation, one presidential adviser said.
White House aides and
other people close to Trump anticipate that Whitaker will rein in any report summarizing Mueller’s investigation and will not allow the president to be subpoenaed.
Friends said that Whitaker has greater attributes beyond his loyalty to Trump.
“He’s been underestimated before,” said Brenna Bird, a Republican county prosecutor in Iowa. “But he built a solid legal career.”
The decision to fire Sessions and replace him with Whitaker had been in the works since September, when the president began asking friends and associates if they thought it would be a good idea, according to people familiar with the discussions.
The goal was not unlike the first time the White House considered hiring Whitaker. As attorney general, he could wind down Mueller’s inquiry as the president wanted.
McGahn, for one, was a big proponent of the idea. So was Leonard Leo, the executive vice president of the Federalist Society who regularly advises Trump on judges and other legal matters. Whitaker had also developed a strong rapport with John Kelly, the White House chief of staff. Nick Ayers, Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff, was a fan, too.
Judging by Trump’s public comments, the closed-door charm offensive was working. In an October interview on “Fox & Friends,” Trump said: “I can tell you Matt Whitaker’s a great guy. I mean, I know Matt Whitaker.”
‘I don’t know’ Whitaker
On Friday, after reports surfaced that Whitaker had called courts “the inferior branch” of government and had been on the advisory board of a company that a federal judge shut down and fined nearly $25 million for cheating customers, Trump made a bizarre comment to reporters that he was not familiar with Whitaker. “I don’t know Matt Whitaker,” Trump said as he left for first leg of a weekend trip to Paris.
By early October, Whitaker was close to becoming acting attorney general, people familiar with the situation said, because Sessions had put out feelers to the White House that he wanted to resign. His relationship with the president had so degraded by that point that he could not make the offer to Trump in person.
But White House officials wanted to wait until after the midterm elections, when any criticism would not affect voting.
The concern was well-founded. At 2:44 p.m. Wednesday, hours after the election was over, Trump posted his decision on Twitter that Whitaker would “become our new Acting Attorney General of the United States.”
“He will serve our Country well,” the president wrote.
Within minutes, Democrats criticized Whitaker’s previous comments about the Russia inquiry and demanded that he recuse himself from overseeing it. He also came under fire for serving on the advisory board of World Patent Marketing in Miami, the company that has been accused by the government of bilking millions of dollars from customers.
Whitaker’s time as executive director of the conservative Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust, which accused many Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, of legal and ethical violations also came under scrutiny. So did his legal views, including his stated belief that Marbury v. Madison, which established judicial review, was a bad ruling.
The son of an elementary schoolteacher and a sports scoreboard salesman, Whitaker became the Republican nominee for treasurer in 2002. He toured Iowa’s 99 counties, campaigned with Sen. Charles Grassley and marched in a parade in Sioux City. But he finished a distant second to a longtime Democratic incumbent.
Two years later, Whitaker was appointed by President George W. Bush to serve as the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Iowa. He had no experience in law enforcement, but he had the support of Grassley, who recommended him. The most important cases Whitaker cited in his questionnaire to the Senate Judiciary Committee dealt with a personal injury claim and breaches of contracts.
As a federal prosecutor, Whitaker continued to show political ambition. Matt Strawn, a former chairman of the Iowa Republican Party, said Whitaker was someone “known inside Republican circles as someone you want on your side in a fight.”
Whitaker was one of 61 candidates who applied for three spots on the Iowa Supreme Court in 2011. He arrived at his interview with his family and his minister, according to a person who was part of the vetting process, but he was eliminated early on and was not one of the nine names advanced to Gov. Terry Branstad for consideration.
In 2012, Whitaker supported the presidential campaigns of Tim Pawlenty and then Rick Perry. And in 2014, he was one of several Republicans who sought his party’s nomination for a U.S. Senate seat. Whitaker finished fourth in the primary against Joni Ernst, who went on to win the general election.
By October of last year, Whitaker was telling people he was working as a political commentator on CNN in order to get the attention of Trump, said John Barrett, a professor at St. John’s University School of Law who met Whitaker during a television appearance last June.
His plan worked. Whitaker returned to the Justice Department in October 2017, having once again earned the support of Trump’s closest advisers.
Colleagues described him as affable and said he quickly ingratiated himself with the staff in Sessions’ office. But that reputation shifted over time as some people began to view him as the eyes and ears of the White House, current and former Justice Department officials said.
Grassley spoke to Whitaker this week, after the president’s announcement, and Whitaker conceded that he does not know how long he will remain in charge of the Justice Department.
In truth, he told Grassley, he hasn’t “the slightest idea.”