At­tack dog now leads Jus­tice

Sources: Whi­taker to limit fall­out of Mueller probe

Houston Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - By Adam Gold­man, Michael D. Shear and Mitch Smith

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.

Po­lit­i­cal am­bi­tion

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.”


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