Doesn’t know new act­ing AG, Trump de­clares to me­dia

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WASH­ING­TON — Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump on Fri­day sought to play down spec­u­la­tion that he had ap­pointed Matthew Whi­taker act­ing at­tor­ney gen­eral to cur­tail the spe­cial coun­sel in­ves­ti­ga­tion, telling re­porters that he doesn’t know Whi­taker and hasn’t spo­ken to him about the probe.

“I didn’t speak to Matt Whi­taker about it,” Trump told re­porters as he left the White House en route to Paris. “I don’t know Matt Whi­taker.”

His com­ments came two days af­ter Trump ousted Jeff Ses­sions as at­tor­ney gen­eral and in­stalled Whi­taker, Ses­sions’ chief of staff and a for­mer U.S. at­tor­ney in Iowa, as the top of­fi­cial at the Jus­tice De­part­ment.

The Wash­ing­ton Post re­ported this week that one of the rea­sons Trump liked Whi­taker was be­cause Whi­taker had briefed him on many oc­ca­sions be­cause the pres­i­dent pre­ferred not to talk to Ses­sions, whom Trump had of­ten dis­par­aged pub­licly.

Since step­ping into his new role, Whi­taker has faced

ques­tions — prin­ci­pally from Democrats — about whether he should re­cuse him­self from over­see­ing the spe­cial coun­sel in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence into the 2016 elec­tion, given that he had pre­vi­ously crit­i­cized the probe in opin­ion pieces and as a tele­vi­sion com­men­ta­tor.

Whi­taker’s ap­point­ment has also prompted ques­tions from Democrats about whether Trump brought him aboard to cur­tail or shut down spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion, which is ex­am­in­ing pos­si­ble co­or­di­na­tion be­tween Trump’s cam­paign and Rus­sia, and po­ten­tial ob­struc­tion of the probe by Trump.

Asked by a re­porter whether he hired Whi­taker to rein in the probe, Trump said: “What a stupid ques­tion.”

While claim­ing not to know Whi­taker, Trump praised him as a “very strong per­son with a very strong per­son­al­ity,” say­ing that’s what the Jus­tice De­part­ment needs at this point.

“Matthew Whi­taker is a very smart man,” Trump said. “He is a very re­spected man in the law en­force­ment com­mu­nity. … The choice was greeted with raves ini­tially.”

Trump also sought Fri­day to dis­miss the no­tion that Whi­taker should re­cuse him­self of over­sight of the Rus­sia probe. Trump sug­gested that he would have few choices for at­tor­ney gen­eral and other top gov­ern­ment posts if he elim­i­nated ev­ery­one who had been on tele­vi­sion.

“Do we have to hire some­body in a shell? I don’t think so,” Trump said.

As a tele­vi­sion com­men­ta­tor be­fore tak­ing the job with Ses­sions, Whi­taker floated the idea of de­fund­ing the Mueller

probe. He said it would cross a “red line” for Mueller to in­ves­ti­gate the fi­nances of the Trump Or­ga­ni­za­tion. And he said it was “ridicu­lous” for Deputy At­tor­ney Gen­eral Rod Rosen­stein to have ap­pointed Mueller, as op­posed to run­ning the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion through reg­u­lar Jus­tice De­part­ment channels.

The Wash­ing­ton Post re­ported Thurs­day that Whi­taker has no in­ten­tion of re­cus­ing him­self from over­see­ing the spe­cial coun­sel probe, cit­ing peo­ple close to him.

Trump also sought to brush off sug­ges­tions by some lawyers — in­clud­ing Ge­orge Con­way, hus­band of White House coun­selor Kellyanne Con­way — that the Constitution re­quires Whi­taker to be con­firmed by the Se­nate be­fore he starts serv­ing.

Se­nate Mi­nor­ity Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., also voiced con­cerns about the is­sue in a let­ter to Trump on Fri­day, writ­ing: “I am not aware of any prece­dent for ap­point­ment of an of­fi­cial who has not been con­firmed by the Se­nate to serve as Act­ing At­tor­ney Gen­eral.”

Schumer also asked Trump ques­tions, in­clud­ing whether he had asked Whi­taker for a pledge of loy­alty.

Speak­ing to re­porters, Trump claimed that Whi­taker was “con­firmed at the high­est level” be­cause his nom­i­na­tion to serve as a U.S. at­tor­ney in Iowa had been ap­proved by the Se­nate.

Trump also com­plained that Mueller was not sub­ject to Se­nate con­fir­ma­tion be­fore he be­gan serv­ing as spe­cial coun­sel.

Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell said he ex­pects Whi­taker to be in place for only a short time.

Speak­ing to re­porters in his home state of Ken­tucky, McCon­nell said he doesn’t ques­tion Trump’s au­thor­ity to re­place Ses­sions at the head of the Jus­tice De­part­ment, reit­er­at­ing that a pres­i­dent can fill his own Cab­i­net.

But the Se­nate Repub­li­can leader gave no hint of sup­port for Whi­taker as a per­ma­nent re­place­ment.

“I think this will be a very in­terim AG,” McCon­nell said. “I ex­pect we’ll get a new nom­i­nee quickly for the job.”

McCon­nell also re­it­er­ated his long-stand­ing sup­port for Mueller’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion, de­spite Trump’s call this week for a speedy end to the probe.

Trump has also said Mueller should be al­lowed to fin­ish his in­ves­ti­ga­tion, McCon­nell said, adding, “that also hap­pens to be my view.”

Asked about po­ten­tial per­ma­nent re­place­ments for Ses­sions, Trump said he likes for­mer New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Repub­li­can, but has not spo­ken with him about the job.

Trump also re­peated his fre­quent claim that the Mueller in­ves­ti­ga­tion is a “hoax.”

“There’s no col­lu­sion,” Trump said. “It’s a whole hoax.”

He said the rea­son he pre­vailed in the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion is that he was the bet­ter can­di­date and that Demo­crat Hil­lary Clin­ton “didn’t know what the hell she was do­ing.”

MUELLER PROBE WOR­RIES

Mean­while, the White House is brac­ing for Mueller’s probe to fire up again.

Trump’s ad­vis­ers are pri­vately ex­press­ing wor­ries that the spe­cial coun­sel, who’s been out of the news for the past month, has been stealth­ily com­pil­ing in­for­ma­tion and could soon is­sue new in­dict­ments or a damn­ing fi­nal re­port.

Trump and his aides are con­cerned about Mueller’s next move with the work that is com­plete, ac­cord­ing to a White House of­fi­cial and a Repub­li­can with close ties to the ad­min­is­tra­tion.

They in­sisted on anonymity to com­ment on con­ver­sa­tions they were not au­tho­rized to de­scribe.

Mueller kept a low pro­file for the past month as vot­ers were mulling over their choices for this week’s elec­tions.

But a flurry of ac­tiv­ity dur­ing his quiet pe­riod, in­clud­ing weeks of grand jury tes­ti­mony about Trump con­fi­dant Roger Stone and ne­go­ti­a­tions over an in­ter­view with the pres­i­dent, hinted at pub­lic de­vel­op­ments ahead as in­ves­ti­ga­tors move closer to ad­dress­ing key ques­tions un­der­pin­ning the spe­cial coun­sel in­quiry: Did Trump il­le­gally ob­struct the in­ves­ti­ga­tion? And did his cam­paign have ad­vance knowl­edge of il­le­gally hacked Demo­cratic emails?

Trump has told con­fi­dants he re­mains deeply an­noyed by the 18-month-old Mueller probe, be­liev­ing it is not just a “witch hunt” but an ex­pen­sive and lengthy neg­a­tive dis­trac­tion.

So far, Trump has heeded ad­vice not to di­rectly in­ter­fere. But even if Whi­taker does not cur­tail the in­ves­ti­ga­tion, Trump could di­rect him to take a more ag­gres­sive stance in de­clas­si­fy­ing doc­u­ments that could fur­ther un­der­mine or mud­dle the probe,

the White House aide and Repub­li­can of­fi­cial said.

“It’s very sig­nif­i­cant be­cause Whi­taker’s po­si­tion on in­dict­ments or fu­ture in­dict­ments may be dif­fer­ent than Rosen­stein’s, and Rosen­stein had given Mueller a broad man­date to pur­sue var­i­ous crimes,” said Wash­ing­ton crim­i­nal de­fense lawyer Jef­frey Ja­cobovitz.

The Mueller in­ves­ti­ga­tion has so far pro­duced 32 crim­i­nal charges and four guilty pleas from Trump as­so­ci­ates. But the work is not done.

A clear fo­cus con­cerns Stone. The spe­cial coun­sel’s team has been in­ves­ti­gat­ing Stone’s con­nec­tion to Wik­iLeaks dur­ing the 2016 cam­paign and whether he had ad­vance knowl­edge of the group’s plans to re­lease hacked ma­te­rial dam­ag­ing to Clin­ton.

Stone has said he did not, but emails, Twit­ter mes­sages and his own pub­lic state­ments show he por­trayed him­self as plugged into the Wik­iLeaks or­bit. That in­cludes im­ply­ing he had in­side knowl­edge in sep­a­rate email ex­changes with a Bre­it­bart ed­i­tor and Steve Ban­non, the for­mer Trump cam­paign chief ex­ec­u­tive, just days be­fore Wik­iLeaks be­gan re­leas­ing thou­sands of emails stolen from Clin­ton cam­paign chair­man John Podesta.

Ban­non and other Stone as­so­ci­ates have been ques­tioned, and mul­ti­ple wit­nesses have ap­peared be­fore the grand jury. One as­so­ciate, Jerome Corsi, said in a video record­ing Mon­day that he’s “been in­volved in a re­ally con­stant ba­sis” for two months with Mueller’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

On Thurs­day, a fed­eral ap­peals court heard a chal­lenge to Mueller’s au­thor­ity brought by Stone aide An­drew Miller, who de­fied a grand jury sub­poena last sum­mer and was held in con­tempt by a judge.

In the pres­i­dent’s or­bit, there re­mains some con­cern about his el­dest son, Don­ald Trump Jr., though there are no out­ward in­di­ca­tions that charges are im­mi­nent, ac­cord­ing to a Repub­li­can close to the White House who is not au­tho­rized to speak pub­licly about pri­vate con­ver­sa­tions.

Be­yond Mueller, but also within the Jus­tice De­part­ment’s over­sight, is a fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Trump’s long­time le­gal fixer, Michael Co­hen, who ad­mit­ted as part of a guilty plea in Au­gust to co­or­di­nat­ing with Trump on a hush-money scheme to si­lence a porn ac­tress and an ex-Play­boy model who say they had af­fairs with Trump.

The pres­i­dent hasn’t been charged with any wrong­do­ing, but fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors have said that a grand jury in­ves­ti­ga­tion is on­go­ing and it tar­gets un­spec­i­fied “oth­ers.” Court pa­pers show Trump’s con­duct and that of top ex­ec­u­tives at the Trump Or­ga­ni­za­tion, some of whom have re­ceived im­mu­nity, have been scru­ti­nized.

It’s un­clear what ad­di­tional charges pros­e­cu­tors are pur­su­ing and how much of it per­tains to the pres­i­dent per­son­ally. Fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors have said in court pa­pers that the case in­volves nu­mer­ous “un­charged” third par­ties and have ar­gued against dis­clos­ing search war­rants and other doc­u­ments that would “cer­tainly re­sult in a very pub­lic guess­ing game” about their iden­ti­ties.

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