Trump: ‘I don’t know ... Whitaker’
Questions surface over past remarks by interim AG
WASHINGTON — Matthew Whitaker’s future at the helm of the Justice Department appeared uncertain Friday as President Donald Trump denied even knowing the man he had named acting attorney general just 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.”
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 Senateconfirmed Justice Department official, which Whitaker is not, could dismiss Mueller.
Whitaker, a Republican Party loyalist and former chief of staff to just-ousted 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.
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
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’s current 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. McConnell said he expects Whitaker to be “a very interim” appointee.
“The president has said repeatedly he’s not going to dismiss the Mueller investigation,” McConnell told reporters at Kentucky’s Capitol. “He’s said repeatedly it’s going to be allowed to finish. That also happens to be my view.”
Trump has not said whom he will nominate to permanently replace Sessions.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is said to be a candidate, along with Labor Secretary Alex Acosta and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, among others.