Act­ing AG likely to pro­tect Trump from Rus­sia in­quiry



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 him­self from the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion, given that he has writ­ten opin­ion pieces 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 spokes­woman de­clined to com­ment. Of­fi­cials there have said Whi­taker will fol­low the reg­u­lar pro­ce­dure in han­dling any ethics is­sues that arise.

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.

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.

The two peo­ple close to Whi­taker also said they strongly be­lieve he would not ap­prove any re­quest from spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller to sub­poena the pres­i­dent. Mueller and Trump’s lawyers have ne­go­ti­ated for months about a pos­si­ble in­ter­view, with no agree­ment in sight.

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 abuse from Trump, who soured on Ses­sions be­cause he re­cused him­self from over­sight of the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion shortly after he ar­rived at the Jus­tice Depart­ment.

Ses­sions felt that Mueller’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion had gone on too long, but also be­lieved it was im­por­tant that he stay in the at­tor­ney gen­eral job as a means of pro­tect­ing the spe­cial coun­sel’s work so that, when it was con­cluded, the pub­lic would have con­fi­dence it had not been ma­nip­u­lated, ac­cord­ing to a per­son fa­mil­iar with his think­ing.

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 Deputy At­tor­ney Gen­eral Rod Rosen­stein’s abil­ity to give Mueller such wide lat­i­tude and wanted to ex­plore the bounds of what Mueller was ex­am­in­ing, though Rosen­stein kept Ses­sion’s 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 – Whi­taker dressed in a “morn­ing suit,” which in­cluded for­mal trousers, a vest and a long coat, a per­son fa­mil­iar with the mat­ter said.

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 probe, and they had no rea­son to be­lieve that Rosen­stein would now be cut out.


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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