Whitaker won’t recuse himself from Mueller probe, source says
Ex-prosecutor says, ‘We’re in totally uncharted waters’
WASHINGTON — Matthew Whitaker, President Donald Trump’s new acting attorney general, has no intention of recusing himself from overseeing special counsel Robert Mueller, despite having openly criticized his Russia probe, a person familiar with the matter said Thursday.
Whitaker would, however, consult Justice Department ethics officials if a particular matter arose, said the person, who asked to remain anonymous speaking about the issue.
Democrats have demanded that Whitaker step back from Mueller’s continuing investigation, based on his past criticism of the probe. Trump named Whitaker to run the Justice Department temporarily after ousting Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Wednesday.
As Mueller’s new boss, Whitaker has significant power to hobble or even halt the investigation that Trump has long called a witch hunt. Mueller is probing Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, whether Trump or any of his associates conspired in the meddling, and whether Trump obstructed justice.
Former Justice Department officials agreed with Democratic lawmakers who have demanded that Whitaker recuse himself — as Sessions did in 2017. That left Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in charge of the Russia probe until Trump replaced Sessions.
“We’re in totally uncharted waters,” said Jeffrey Cramer, a former federal prosecutor. The Justice Department “must be above and beyond any sense of impropriety for people to have confidence in the criminal justice system.”
As a CNN commentator, Whitaker openly argued last year that Mueller’s probe needed to be curtailed, even describing a scenario in which an acting attorney general doesn’t fire Mueller but “just reduces his budget to so low that his investigations grind to almost a halt.”
He said Trump may be right in calling the probe a witch hunt if it turned to Trump’s personal finances and those of his family.
As far as Whitaker is concerned, “the question is not is there an impropriety or has he already been influenced,” said Cramer, who’s managing director of the Berkeley Research Group. “The question is: Is there an appearance of impropriety? A reasonable answer has to be yes. He’s spoken out against this investigation.”
Whitaker also was chairman of Sam Clovis’ failed campaign for Iowa state treasurer in 2014. Clovis had run for the Senate as well and later worked on Trump’s presidential campaign. Clovis has been questioned as part of Mueller’s Russia probe.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., will try to force a vote next week on legislation to protect Mueller.
Flake announced the move Thursday. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the bill in April. It would give special counsels a 10-day window to seek review of a firing.
The senators will ask for consent to vote on the bill, but any senator can object.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., scheduled a call Thursday for Democrats to discuss their response.