Acting U.S. AG not likely to last in job, McConnell says
‘I don’t know Matt Whitaker,’ Trump says
WASHINGTON — Matthew Whitaker’s future at the helm of the U.S. Justice Department appeared uncertain Friday as President Donald Trump denied knowing the man he had named acting attorney general two days earlier. The Senate’s top Republican predicted a permanent replacement could be named soon for Whitaker, who is now overseeing the Trump-Russia probe.
The comments from Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell came as Whitaker’s past business ties and remarks on special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation and other topics were drawing scrutiny from Democrats and ethics groups.
Speaking to reporters Friday, Trump said: “I don’t know Matt Whitaker.” That contradicted Trump’s remarks on Fox News last month, when he called Whitaker “a great guy” and said, “I mean, I know Matt Whitaker.”
McConnell said: “I think this will be a very interim AG.”
Another Republican senator, Susan Collins of Maine, said she was concerned by some of Whitaker’s past comments and called for legislation that would place limits on his ability to fire special counsel Mueller. That would include specifying that only a Senate-confirmed Justice Department official — which Whitaker is not — could dismiss Mueller.
Whitaker, a Republican Party loyalist and chief of staff to justousted attorney general Jeff Sessions, was elevated Wednesday after his boss was forced from his job by Trump. The new position handed him oversight of Mueller’s investigation into possible ties between Russia and Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
Since Wednesday, Whitaker has faced pressure from Democrats to recuse himself from overseeing Mueller based on critical comments he made about the investigation before joining the Justice Department last year.
Those included an op-ed article in which he said Mueller would be straying outside his mandate if he investigated Trump family finances and a radio interview in which he maintained there was no evidence of collusion between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign. He also tweeted an exprosecutor’s opinion piece that described a “Mueller lynch mob,” which he said was “worth a read.”
There have also been reports about past comments questioning the power and reach of the federal judiciary, and about his ties to an invention-promotion company that was accused of misleading investors.
Legal scholars are debating the constitutionality of his appointment, with some lawyers saying it is illegal because he has not been confirmed by the Senate.
Despite Trump distancing himself from Whitaker, two Republicans close to the president said he had enjoyed Whitaker’s TV appearances and the two had struck a bond. Those TV appearances included one on CNN in which Whitaker suggested that the Mueller probe could be starved of resources.
Trump told associates that he felt Whitaker would be “loyal” and would not have recused himself from the Russia probe as Sessions had done, according to the Republicans, who were not authorized to speak publicly about private conversations and commented only on condition of anonymity.
On Friday, Trump said he had not spoken with Whitaker about Mueller’s investigation, which until now has been overseen by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Rosenstein told reporters Friday that based on his experiences with Whitaker, “I think he’s a superb choice for attorney general.”
Of the scrutiny Whitaker is facing, Trump said, “It’s a shame that no matter who I put in they go after.”
Matthew Whitaker was appointed acting U.S. attorney general on Wednesday.