Act­ing at­tor­ney gen­eral has been fre­quent skep­tic of Mueller’s work

Law­mak­ers worry about ef­fect on Rus­sia in­quiry

USA TODAY US Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Kevin John­son

WASH­ING­TON – If Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump was seek­ing an at­tor­ney gen­eral free of po­ten­tial con­flicts with the in­ves­ti­ga­tion of Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence in the U.S. elec­tion, Matthew Whi­taker would be an un­likely can­di­date.

Known as a Trump loy­al­ist dur­ing his year­long ten­ure as chief of staff to At­tor- ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions, Whi­taker was pro­moted Wed­nes­day by Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump to take his boss’s job af­ter Ses­sions was forced out.

He im­me­di­ately came un­der scru­tiny.

The for­mer fed­eral pros­e­cu­tor from Iowa was a vo­cal sur­ro­gate for the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion. At var­i­ous times, he pub­licly called on Deputy At­tor­ney Gen­eral Rod Rosen­stein to rein in Robert Mueller, the Jus­tice Depart­ment spe­cial coun­sel lead­ing the Rus­sia in-

ves­ti­ga­tion. He has re­ferred to any ex­am­i­na­tion of the Trump fam­ily fi­nances as breach­ing a “red line” of Mueller’s au­thor­ity.

In a tele­vi­sion ap­pear­ance in July 2017, he raised the prospect that the Jus­tice Depart­ment, rather than fir­ing Mueller out­right, could choke off fund­ing for the of­fice, which would lead to the in­quiry’s slow death.

Ses­sions, a for­mer ad­viser to Trump’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, re­cused him­self from over­sight of Mueller’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion to avoid po­ten­tial con­flicts of in­ter­est, a move that in­fu­ri­ated Trump and set the stage for the at­tor­ney gen­eral’s even­tual de­par­ture.

De­spite his crit­i­cism of the spe­cial coun­sel, there was no im­me­di­ate in­di­ca­tion that Whi­taker in­tended to re­cuse him­self from over­see­ing Mueller’s work, a task that un­til Wed­nes­day was car­ried out by Rosen­stein.

Demo­cratic law­mak­ers and some Repub­li­cans sig­naled deep un­ease with the new lead­er­ship at Trump’s Jus­tice Depart­ment and the threat it could pose to Mueller’s in­quiry.

Rank­ing Democrats on con­gres­sional com­mit­tees that over­see Jus­tice op­er­a­tions de­manded that ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing Whi­taker, pre­serve all records re­lat­ing to the Mueller in­ves­ti­ga­tion and the fir­ing of Ses­sions.

“We re­mind you that con­ceal­ing, re­mov­ing or de­stroy­ing such records may con­sti­tute a crime, may re­sult in the im­me­di­ate dis­qual­i­fi­ca­tion from hold­ing a po­si­tion in the fed­eral gov­ern­ment and may be pun­ish­able by up to three years’ im­pris­on­ment un­der fed­eral law,” law­mak­ers warned in a state­ment.

Sim­i­lar warn­ings, is­sued by Sen. Dianne Fe­in­stein, D-Calif., and Reps. Eli­jah Cum­mings, D-Md.; Jer­rold Nadler, D-N.Y.; and Adam Schiff, D-Calif., were di­rected to FBI Direc­tor Christo­pher Wray, CIA Direc­tor Gina Haspel and other na­tional se­cu­rity of­fi­cials.

Sen. Su­san Collins, R-Maine, whose name was not at­tached to the doc­u­ment preser­va­tion de­mand, is­sued a sep­a­rate state­ment urg­ing that Mueller’s work be pro­tected in the wake of the Jus­tice Depart­ment shakeup.

“Spe­cial coun­sel Mueller must be al­lowed to com­plete his work with­out in­ter­fer­ence – re­gard­less who is AG,” Collins said.

Collins’ re­marks were fol­lowed by sim­i­lar com­ments from Mitt Rom­ney, the Repub­li­can sen­a­tor-elect from Utah, and Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.

Whi­taker, a for­mer Univer­sity of Iowa foot­ball player, has made no se­cret of his qualms about the spe­cial coun­sel’s in­quiry and other po­lit­i­cally charged mat­ters that con­fronted the depart­ment.

“It is time for Rosen­stein ... to or­der Mueller to limit the scope of his in­ves­ti­ga­tion to the four cor­ners of the or­der ap­point­ing him spe­cial coun­sel,” Whi­taker wrote in a 2017 col­umn for CNN. “If he doesn’t, then Mueller’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion will even­tu­ally start to look like a po­lit­i­cal fish­ing ex­pe­di­tion. This would not only be out of char­ac­ter for a re­spected fig­ure like Mueller, but also could be dam­ag­ing to the pres­i­dent of the United States and his fam­ily – and by ex­ten­sion, to the coun­try.”

Around the same time, Trump told The New York Times in an in­ter­view that Mueller would be ven­tur­ing be­yond his au­thor­ity by ex­am­in­ing is­sues re­lated to the pres­i­dent’s fam­ily fi­nances.

On CNN last year, a few months be­fore join­ing the Jus­tice Depart­ment, Whi­taker raised the prospect of cut­ting fund­ing to Mueller’s team, al­low­ing the in­ves­ti­ga­tion to “grind to a halt.”

Whi­taker’s links to Mueller’s in­vesti- gation go be­yond pub­lic state­ments.

He served as an ad­viser to Sam Clo­vis, a for­mer Trump cam­paign of­fi­cial who was in­ter­viewed by Mueller’s team, dur­ing Clo­vis’ 2014 cam­paign for Iowa state trea­surer.

Like Trump, Whi­taker took is­sue with the de­ci­sion in 2016 not to pros­e­cute Hil­lary Clin­ton for her han­dling of clas­si­fied in­for­ma­tion while she was sec­re­tary of state.

In an opin­ion piece for USA TO­DAY, Whi­taker dis­agreed with then-FBI Direc­tor James Comey that “no rea­son­able pros­e­cu­tor” would in­dict Clin­ton in con­nec­tion with her use of a pri­vate e-mail server.

“I be­lieve my­self to have been a rea­son­able pros­e­cu­tor, and when the facts and ev­i­dence show a crim­i­nal vi­o­la­tion has been com­mit­ted, the in­di­vid­u­als in­volved should not dic­tate whether the case is pros­e­cuted,” Whi­taker wrote.

He wrote the col­umn while serv­ing as ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Foun­da­tion for Ac­count­abil­ity and Civic Trust, a con­ser­va­tive watch­dog group.

Some crit­ics said Whi­taker’s very el­e­va­tion – from a se­nior staffer to the na­tion’s chief law en­force­ment of­fi­cer – sub­verts the Con­sti­tu­tion.

Neal Katyal, who was act­ing so­lic­i­tor gen­eral in the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, and at­tor­ney Ge­orge Con­way, spouse of White House ad­viser Kellyanne Con­way, slammed the ap­point­ment Thurs­day in a col­umn in The New York Times.

AP

Act­ing At­tor­ney Gen­eral Matthew Whi­taker was At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions’ chief of staff.

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