Whi­taker has his­tory of po­lit­i­cal am­bi­tion

Le­gal­ity ques­tioned in Ses­sions’ ouster

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY JEFF MORDOCK

Act­ing At­tor­ney Gen­eral Matthew Whi­taker has al­ways had his eye on a higher of­fice, even will­ing to mount a cam­paign to be­come Iowa’s trea­surer early in his ca­reer sim­ply be­cause the Repub­li­can Party needed a can­di­date.

Mr. Whi­taker was trounced in the 2002 elec­tion, as ex­pected. But the mun­dane po­si­tion was not the goal, fel­low Hawkeyes say. Rather, it was to in­gra­ti­ate him­self to the state Repub­li­can Party.

“It was not a com­pet­i­tive race, but he put some good­will in the Repub­li­can bank be­cause of it,” said Guy Cook, a for­mer fed­eral pros­e­cu­tor who has known Mr. Whi­taker for nearly two decades.

That race, while lit­tle re­mem­bered, was the start of Mr. Whi­taker’s long climb to­ward higher po­lit­i­cal po­si­tions, ul­ti­mately lead­ing to Wed­nes­day, when Pres­i­dent Trump named him the act­ing head of the Jus­tice Depart­ment in place of ousted At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions.

Mr. Trump’s moves drew scru­tiny Thurs­day.

Top Democrats on Capi­tol Hill, some of them soon to be pow­er­ful com­mit­tee chairs, fired off let­ters order­ing the White House, FBI, CIA, Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency and oth­ers to pre­serve any records they have of Mr. Ses­sions’ forced res­ig­na­tion, in an­tic­i­pa­tion of a full con­gres­sional in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Mean­while, le­gal an­a­lysts ques­tioned whether Mr. Trump had the power to leapfrog oth­ers, such as Deputy At­tor­ney Gen­eral Rod Rosen­stein, and ap­point Mr. Whi­taker, who had been chief of staff at the depart­ment — a po­si­tion that did not re­quire Se­nate con­fir­ma­tion.

Neal K. Katyal, a for­mer Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion act­ing so­lic­i­tor gen­eral, and Ge­orge T. Con­way III, a lawyer and hus­band of White House ad­viser Kellyanne Con­way, wrote a New York

Times col­umn say­ing the move vi­o­lates the Con­sti­tu­tion’s re­quire­ment that all prin­ci­pal of­fi­cers go through Se­nate con­fir­ma­tion.

No court chal­lenge had been filed as of Thurs­day af­ter­noon, leav­ing Mr. Whi­taker en­sconced in the po­si­tion — and all sides won­der­ing what sorts of changes he would make at the depart­ment.

Mar­i­juana en­thu­si­asts, for ex­am­ple, may be ex­pect­ing a shift in the depart­ment’s get-tough prose­cu­tion pol­icy. Mar­i­juana com­pany stocks rose sharply Wed­nes­day as Mr. Ses­sions was ousted.

Mr. Cook said Mr. Whi­taker will be in­de­pen­dent and de­scribed the act­ing at­tor­ney gen­eral as “a man of his word.”

“He’s not to be un­der­es­ti­mated,” he said. “He is a fo­cused, dis­ci­plined guy and no­body’s fool. His rep­u­ta­tion is im­por­tant to him, and those things will come into play as he deals with be­ing the at­tor­ney gen­eral in these times.”

But F. Mont­gomery Brown, an Iowa lawyer who has faced off against Mr. Whi­taker in the court­room, wor­ried that his am­bi­tion would be a prob­lem.

“He’s fly­ing too close to the sun,” said Mr. Brown, a Demo­crat. “Is at­tor­ney gen­eral a po­lit­i­cal job or a job for ex­tremely tal­ented le­gal pro­fes­sion­als, be­cause he’s a po­lit­i­cal man.”

Af­ter his trea­sury de­feat, Mr. Whi­taker worked in Iowa to se­cure the re­elec­tion of Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush. He co­or­di­nated the cam­paign’s ef­forts for the Iowa cau­cuses and racked up cred­its within the lo­cal Repub­li­can Party. He was able to par­lay his cam­paign work into con­fir­ma­tion as U.S. at­tor­ney for the South­ern District of Iowa in 2004, de­spite never pros­e­cut­ing a crim­i­nal case.

“Dif­fer­ent parts of the coun­try han­dle the U.S. at­tor­ney’s nom­i­nees dif­fer­ently,” Mr. Cook said. “Some­times you see young peo­ple the party thinks is up and com­ing, some­times it is given to ca­reer pros­e­cu­tors and a lot of the time you see peo­ple re­warded the job for their po­lit­i­cal ac­tivism.”

In a defin­ing mo­ment for Iowa pol­i­tics, Mr. Whi­taker went toe-to-toe with state Sen. Matt McCoy, who was viewed as a ris­ing star in state Demo­cratic pol­i­tics and was the first openly gay mem­ber of the Iowa Leg­is­la­ture.

Mr. Whi­taker brought pub­lic cor­rup­tion charges against Mr. McCoy in 2007, say­ing the sen­a­tor used his po­si­tion to force a for­mer busi­ness part­ner to pay him money. Mr. McCoy in­sisted that the dis­pute was over a soured busi­ness re­la­tion­ship and that he did noth­ing wrong.

The case largely fell apart with the cred­i­bil­ity of the gov­ern­ment’s star wit­ness. For­mer as­so­ci­ates de­picted the man, Thomas Vasquez, as a drug user, dead­beat and abuser of women. Even his Al­co­holics Anony­mous spon­sor called him a patho­log­i­cal liar. A jury ac­quit­ted Mr. McCoy in two hours, in­clud­ing time for lunch.

Mr. McCoy said he be­lieves Mr. Whi­taker tar­geted him as a Demo­crat and as a mem­ber of the LGBT com­mu­nity.

“I think this was com­pletely mo­ti­vated by him want­ing a tro­phy,” he said. “It was pure am­bi­tion, and win­ning a case against me would have been a po­lit­i­cal shot in the arm for a guy who had failed po­lit­i­cally.”

At the time, Mr. Whi­taker, who had strong ties to Iowa’s evan­gel­i­cal com­mu­nity, de­nied that pol­i­tics or Mr. McCoy’s sex­u­al­ity in­flu­enced the case.

Mr. Brown, who was one of Mr. McCoy’s at­tor­neys, dis­agrees.

“I do think the fact that Mr. McCoy was a Demo­crat and the state’s first openly gay leg­is­la­tor was a fac­tor,” he said. “The two of them are po­lar op­po­sites, and the jury de­clared the al­le­ga­tions were base­less with a prompt ‘not guilty’ ver­dict.”

Lo­cal Iowa pa­pers roundly crit­i­cized the prose­cu­tion. The Des Moines Regis­ter in 2007 said the jury’s ver­dict was “the right one” and called the case an out­rage.

Mr. McCoy said he fears Mr. Whi­taker won’t be ag­gres­sive in pros­e­cut­ing hate crimes against mem­bers of the LGBT com­mu­nity. He praised Mr. Ses­sions’ ef­forts to pros­e­cute the killing of a 16-yearold trans­gen­der Iowa res­i­dent.

“The sig­nal we got from DOJ is that they were go­ing to con­tinue to pros­e­cute hate crimes very strong un­der Ses­sions, but I think Whi­taker will be on the wrong side of this is­sue,” he said.

Mr. Whi­taker re­signed his pros­e­cu­tor’s post in 2009 with the in­au­gu­ra­tion of Pres­i­dent Obama. He went back into pri­vate prac­tice and was co-chair­man of Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s 2012 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign.

In 2014, Mr. Whi­taker ran for the Repub­li­can nom­i­na­tion for U.S. Se­nate, com­ing in third in a Repub­li­can pri­mary.

He was later ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Foun­da­tion for Ac­count­abil­ity and Civic Trust, a con­ser­va­tive non­profit that was deeply in­volved in crit­i­ciz­ing for­mer Sec­re­tary of State Hil­lary Clin­ton’s se­cret emails.

Mr. Whi­taker also worked as com­men­ta­tor on CNN, where he made the now-fa­mous com­ments about end­ing spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller’s Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion by chok­ing off the fund­ing and ar­gued for lim­it­ing the scope of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion that he is now run­ning.

Although those state­ments have drawn me­dia scru­tiny in re­cent days, Mr. Cook noted that Mr. Whi­taker made those com­ments while he was a pri­vate cit­i­zen.

“He was a paid pun­dit with a po­lit­i­cal point of view,” he said. “Those com­ments were made in that con­text, and he has a First Amend­ment right to make what­ever com­ments he wants.”

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