Acting attorney general faces scrutiny
Trump loyalist has been a critic of Russia probe
WASHINGTON – If President Donald Trump was seeking an attorney general free of potential conflicts with the investigation of Russian interference in the U.S. election, Matthew Whitaker would be an unlikely candidate.
Known as a Trump loyalist during his yearlong tenure as chief of staff to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Whitaker was promoted Wednesday by President Donald Trump to take his boss’s job after Sessions was forced out.
He immediately came under scrutiny.
The former federal prosecutor from Iowa was a vocal surrogate for the Trump administration. At various times, he publicly called on Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to rein in Robert Mueller, the Justice Department special counsel leading the Russia investigation. He has referred to any examination of the Trump family finances as breaching a “red line” of Mueller’s authority.
In a television appearance in July 2017, he raised the prospect that the Justice Department, rather than firing Mueller outright, could choke off funding for the office, which would lead to the inquiry’s slow death.
Sessions, a former adviser to
Trump’s presidential campaign, recused himself from oversight of Mueller’s investigation to avoid potential conflicts of interest, a move that infuriated Trump and set the stage for the attorney general’s eventual departure.
Despite his criticism of the special counsel, there was no immediate indication that Whitaker intended to recuse himself from overseeing Mueller’s work, a task that until Wednesday was carried out by Rosenstein.
Democratic lawmakers and some Republicans signaled deep unease with the new leadership at Trump’s Justice Department and the threat it could pose to Mueller’s inquiry.
Ranking Democrats on congressional committees that oversee Justice operations demanded that administration officials, including Whitaker, preserve all records relating to the Mueller investigation and the firing of Sessions.
“We remind you that concealing, removing or destroying such records may constitute a crime, may result in the immediate disqualification from holding a position in the federal government and may be punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment under federal law,” lawmakers warned in a statement.
Similar warnings, issued by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Reps. Elijah Cummings, D-Md.; Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y.; and Adam Schiff, D-Calif., were directed to FBI Director Christopher Wray, CIA Director Gina Haspel and other national security officials.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, whose name was not attached to the document preservation demand, issued a separate statement urging that Mueller’s work be protected in the wake of the Justice Department shakeup.
“Special counsel Mueller must be allowed to complete his work without interference – regardless who is AG,” Collins said.
Collins’ remarks were followed by similar comments from Mitt Romney, the Republican senator-elect from Utah, and Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.
Whitaker has made no secret of his qualms about the special counsel’s inquiry and other politically charged matters that confronted the department.
“It is time for Rosenstein ... to order Mueller to limit the scope of his investigation to the four corners of the order appointing him special counsel,” Whitaker wrote in a 2017 column for CNN. “If he doesn’t, then Mueller’s investigation will eventually start to look like a political fishing expedition. This would not only be out of character for a respected figure like Mueller, but also could be damaging to the president of the United States and his family – and by extension, to the country.”
Around the same time, Trump told The New York Times that Mueller would be venturing beyond his authority by examining issues related to the president’s family finances.
On CNN last year, a few months before joining the Justice Department, Whitaker raised the prospect of cutting funding to Mueller’s team, allowing the investigation to “grind to a halt.”