Trump de­nies know­ing act­ing at­tor­ney gen­eral

Star-Telegram - - News - BY JOHN WAG­NER

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 he 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 the Mueller 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.”

In re­cent days, Whi­taker has faced a great deal of scru­tiny in the me­dia, in­clud­ing for his ser­vice on the ad­vi­sory board of an in­ven­tion-pro­mo­tion com­pany ac­cused of fraud by cus­tomers.

Trump also sought Fri­day to dis­miss the no­tion that Whi­taker should re­cuse him­self of over­sight of the Rus­sia probe. Trump sug­gested 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 that it was “ridicu­lous” for Deputy At­tor­ney Gen­eral Rod Rosen­stein to have ap­pointed Robert 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 spe­cial­coun­sel probe, ac­cord­ing to 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.”

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 a spe­cial coun­sel.

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.

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