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