Peo­ple close to act­ing AG say he won’t re­cuse

They also think he’d re­ject Mueller sub­poena of Trump

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - In­for­ma­tion for this ar­ti­cle was con­trib­uted by Devlin Bar­rett, Matt Zapo­to­sky, Josh Dawsey, Feli­cia Sonmez and John Wag­ner of The Wash­ing­ton Post; and by staff mem­bers of The As­so­ci­ated Press.

WASH­ING­TON — Act­ing At­tor­ney Gen­eral Matt 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 on Wed­nes­day, Whi­taker has faced ques­tions — prin­ci­pally from Democrats — about whether he should re­cuse from the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion, given that he has writ­ten opin­ion pieces in the past about the in­ves­ti­ga­tion, and is a friend and po­lit­i­cal ally of a wit­ness.

On Thurs­day, two peo­ple close to Whi­taker said he has no in­ten­tion of tak­ing him­self off the Rus­sia case.

Ethics of­fi­cials at the Jus­tice Depart­ment are likely to re­view his past work to see if he has any fi­nan­cial or per­sonal con­flicts. In many in­stances, that of­fice does not re­quire a Jus­tice Depart­ment of­fi­cial to re­cuse, but sug­gests a course of ac­tion. In the past, se­nior Jus­tice Depart­ment of­fi­cials tend to fol­low such ad­vice, but they are rarely re­quired to do so, ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cials fa­mil­iar with the process.

A Jus­tice Depart­ment spokesman de­clined to com­ment. Of­fi­cials there have said Whi­taker will fol­low the reg­u­lar pro­ce­dure in han­dling any ethics is­sues

that arise. On Thurs­day, a coali­tion of 18 state at­tor­neys gen­eral sent a let­ter to Whi­taker call­ing on him to re­cuse him­self from the spe­cial coun­sel’s Rus­sia probe.

In the let­ter, they re­fer to Whi­taker’s “widely-cir­cu­lated pub­lic com­ments crit­i­ciz­ing spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion of Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence in the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.”

They say Deputy At­tor­ney Gen­eral Rod Rosen­stein should “con­tinue to su­per­vise” the Mueller probe.

The let­ter was signed by the at­tor­neys gen­eral of Mas­sachusetts, New York, Cal­i­for­nia, Con­necti­cut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illi­nois, Mary­land, Min­nesota, New Jersey, New Mex­ico, North Carolina, Ore­gon, Rhode Is­land, Ver­mont, Vir­ginia, Wash­ing­ton and the Dis­trict of Columbia.

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 spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller.

The Jus­tice Depart­ment ad­vises em­ploy­ees that “gen­er­ally, an em­ployee should seek ad­vice from an ethics of­fi­cial be­fore par­tic­i­pat­ing in any mat­ter in which he 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.”

Ethics of­fi­cials might ad­vise Whi­taker that his com­men­tary cre­ated the ap­pear­ance of a con­flict of in­ter­est and leave the de­ci­sion to him. If they rec­om­mended force­fully that he re­cuse him­self and he de­clined, Whi­taker could then be re­ferred to the Jus­tice Depart­ment’s Of­fice of Pro­fes­sional Re­spon­si­bil­ity, and his li­cense to prac­tice law could be put at is­sue.

Whi­taker’s el­e­va­tion to be­come the na­tion’s top law en­force­ment of­fi­cial fol­lowed the ouster Wed­nes­day of Jeff Ses­sions as at­tor­ney gen­eral. Ses­sions had en­dured months of pub­lic crit­i­cism from Trump, who soured on Ses­sions be­cause he re­cused him­self from over­sight of the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion shortly af­ter he ar­rived at the Jus­tice Depart­ment. The two peo­ple close to Whi­taker also said they strongly be­lieve he would not ap­prove any re­quest from Mueller to sub­poena the pres­i­dent. Mueller and Trump’s lawyers have ne­go­ti­ated for months about a pos­si­ble in­ter­view, with no agree­ment in sight.

‘BIG MIS­TAKE’

Sen. Joe Manchin of West Vir­ginia, the only Demo­crat who voted to con­firm Ses­sions as at­tor­ney gen­eral, said Thurs­day that Trump’s de­ci­sion to force him out of of­fice was “a big mis­take.”

Asked dur­ing an ap­pear­ance on CBS This Morn­ing if he thinks Trump’s move has brought the coun­try to a con­sti­tu­tional cri­sis, Manchin said: “I think we’re on the verge of that.”

Manchin said that while

Ses­sions, a for­mer Repub­li­can sen­a­tor from Alabama, was more con­ser­va­tive than he is, he showed in­tegrity as at­tor­ney gen­eral.

“The rule of law meant ev­ery­thing to Jeff, I knew that, and I think he stuck with that,” Manchin said. “I think it’s a big mis­take to let Jeff Ses­sions go.”

Manchin, who was re-elected on Tues­day in a state where Trump re­mains pop­u­lar, also voiced con­cern about Whi­taker’s past crit­i­cism of the Mueller in­ves­ti­ga­tion be­fore tak­ing the job as Ses­sions’ chief of staff at the Jus­tice Depart­ment.

“What raises my con­cerns is a per­son that’s been so vo­cal against the in­ves­ti­ga­tion that was go­ing on now put in charge a day af­ter the elec­tion,” Manchin said. “I think that sheds bad light on it. I think that gives con­cern to ev­ery sen­a­tor, Demo­crat and Repub­li­can. … Look­ing like it’s been tilted one way or an­other is wrong.”

But Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell, R-Ky., said Thurs­day that he doesn’t be­lieve Trump will stop Mueller’s Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

“The pres­i­dent has said on mul­ti­ple oc­ca­sions the Mueller in­ves­ti­ga­tion should be com­pleted,” McCon­nell said in an in­ter­view with Lex­ing­ton, Ky.-based ra­dio sta­tion WVLK, ac­cord­ing to CBS News. “He [wishes] it would hap­pen sooner. But I don’t think there’s any chance that the Mueller in­ves­ti­ga­tion will not be al­lowed to fin­ish.”

White House coun­selor Kellyanne Con­way said Ses­sions’ exit is “not a con­sti­tu­tional cri­sis.” She was asked if Trump had in­structed Whi­taker to limit the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion and said the “pres­i­dent hasn’t in­structed him to do any­thing” be­yond serve as act­ing at­tor­ney gen­eral.

Later Thurs­day, Repub­li­can Sen. Jeff Flake and Demo­cratic Sen. Chris Coons an­nounced they will try to force a vote next week on leg­is­la­tion to pro­tect Mueller.

The Se­nate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee ap­proved the bill in April. It would give spe­cial coun­sels a 10-day win­dow to seek re­view of a fir­ing.

The se­na­tors will ask for con­sent to vote on the bill, but any sen­a­tor can ob­ject.

WHI­TAKER VS. ROSEN­STEIN

Even af­ter he ar­rived at the Jus­tice Depart­ment, Whi­taker har­bored frus­tra­tion about the length of the spe­cial coun­sel probe and doubts about the scope of Mueller’s au­thor­ity, a per­son fa­mil­iar with the mat­ter said. He ques­tioned Rosen­stein’s abil­ity to give Mueller such wide lat­i­tude and wanted to ex­plore the bounds of what Mueller was ex­am­in­ing, though Rosen­stein kept Ses­sions’ of­fice “walled off” from the mat­ter, this per­son said. Whi­taker did, how­ever, be­lieve that Ses­sions had no choice but to re­cuse him­self from the mat­ter, the per­son said.

Rosen­stein and Whi­taker have come to eye each other war­ily in re­cent months, peo­ple fa­mil­iar with the mat­ter said. When Rosen­stein was nearly ousted from his post over re­ports that he had sug­gested sur­rep­ti­tiously record­ing the pres­i­dent, Whi­taker was tapped to take over Rosen­stein’s po­si­tion. But af­ter a visit to the White House, Rosen­stein re­turned and stayed in his job, leav­ing peo­ple across the Jus­tice Depart­ment — Whi­taker in­cluded — mys­ti­fied as to what hap­pened, th­ese peo­ple said.

Rosen­stein and Whi­taker both were present at the in­vesti­ture of Supreme Court Jus­tice Brett Ka­vanaugh on Thurs­day.

While Whi­taker is now Mueller’s ul­ti­mate su­per­vi­sor, it was not im­me­di­ately clear whether that meant Rosen­stein would step aside. Jus­tice Depart­ment of­fi­cials said that un­der nor­mal cir­cum­stances, the deputy at­tor­ney gen­eral would likely play an ac­tive, hands-on role in over­see­ing such a high-pro­file in­ves­ti­ga­tion, and they had no rea­son to be­lieve that Rosen­stein would now be cut out.

Whi­taker was vir­tu­ally un­known to Ses­sions be­fore be­com­ing his chief of staff, though Fed­er­al­ist So­ci­ety Ex­ec­u­tive Pres­i­dent Leonard Leo had been tout­ing the for­mer U.S. at­tor­ney from Iowa as early as the tran­si­tion, ac­cord­ing to a per­son fa­mil­iar with the mat­ter. Leo had come to know Whi­taker be­cause both were promi­nent in con­ser­va­tive le­gal cir­cles, and he con­sid­ered Whi­taker a true con­ser­va­tive and tal­ented man­ager, this per­son said.

Ini­tially, Ses­sions chose Jody Hunt, a long­time Jus­tice Depart­ment of­fi­cial, to be the top aide in his of­fice, while Whi­taker made a name for him­self in Wash­ing­ton via TV ap­pear­ances and his work with the con­ser­va­tive Foun­da­tion for Ac­count­abil­ity and Civic Trust.

While liked by Ses­sions, Hunt clashed with Danielle Cutrona, an­other aide in the at­tor­ney gen­eral’s of­fice, in such a way that those around Ses­sions re­al­ized one or the other would have to move on, ac­cord­ing to peo­ple fa­mil­iar with the mat­ter.

On Wed­nes­day evening, Ses­sions gath­ered dozens of top Jus­tice Depart­ment of­fi­cials in the at­tor­ney gen­eral’s con­fer­ence room, ac­cord­ing to a per­son fa­mil­iar with the mat­ter. He talked about lov­ing the job and framed his re­moval as some­thing that hap­pens to ev­ery at­tor­ney gen­eral, the per­son said. He also said he thought Whi­taker would carry the torch, the per­son said.

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