Trump: ‘I don’t know’ Whi­taker

Pres­i­dent con­tra­dicts him­self, backs away from act­ing AG amid scru­tiny


Pres­i­dent Trump dis­tanced him­self Fri­day from act­ing at­tor­ney gen­eral Matthew G. Whi­taker amid in­ten­si­fy­ing scru­tiny of the con­tro­ver­sial le­gal views and busi­ness en­tan­gle­ments of the pres­i­dent’s pick to run the Jus­tice Depart­ment and as­sume con­trol of the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

With the White House scram­bling to man­age pub­lic ex­am­i­na­tion of Whi­taker’s back­ground and re­sis­tance to his lead­er­ship within the Jus­tice Depart­ment, Trump sought to douse spec­u­la­tion that he had in­stalled the par­ti­san loy­al­ist to cur­tail the probe of Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence in the 2016 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign.

Trump in­sisted that he had not spo­ken with Whi­taker about the in­ves­ti­ga­tion be­ing led by spe­cial coun­sel Robert S. Mueller III — and the pres­i­dent up­braided a re­porter when she asked whether he wanted Whi­taker to rein in Mueller. “What a stupid ques­tion,” he said.

De­fi­ant and testy as he de­parted the White House on Fri­day morn­ing for a week­end visit to Paris, Trump claimed four sep­a­rate times that he did not per­son­ally know Whi­taker, who had been serv­ing as chief of staff at the Jus­tice Depart­ment.

“I don’t know Matt Whi­taker,” Trump told re­porters, adding that he knew him only by rep­u­ta­tion.

That claim is false, ac­cord­ing to the pres­i­dent’s past state­ments as well as the ac­counts of White House of­fi­cials — one of whom laughed Fri­day at Trump’s sug­ges­tion that he did not know Whi­taker.

Trump and Whi­taker have met in the Oval Of­fice sev­eral times, and Whi­taker briefed Trump when the pres­i­dent pre­ferred not to talk to then-At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions, whom he had dis­par­aged pub­licly, ac­cord­ing to White House of­fi­cials. As Trump said last month on Fox News Chan­nel, “I know Matt Whi­taker.”

In ad­di­tion, Trump was aware that Whi­taker was a skep­tic of the Mueller probe be­fore ap­point­ing him, which fac­tored into his de­ci­sion to tap him over Deputy At­tor­ney Gen­eral Rod J. Rosen­stein, ac­cord­ing to two White House ad­vis­ers who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to be can­did.

Mean­while, Whi­taker’s pub­lic record is draw­ing fresh scru­tiny. That in­cludes com­ments dur­ing his un­suc­cess­ful 2014 cam­paign in Iowa for U.S. Se­nate that judges should have a “bib­li­cal view,” that he could not sup­port ju­di­cial nom­i­nees who are “sec­u­lar” and that he thinks fed­eral courts are sup­posed to be the “in­fe­rior branch” of the gov­ern­ment. Whi­taker has crit­i­cized the Supreme Court’s land­mark 1803 rul­ing in Mar­bury v. Madi­son, which serves as the foun­da­tion for ju­di­cial re­view of pub­lic pol­icy.

Fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tors last year also looked into whether Whi­taker, as an ad­vi­sory-board mem­ber of a Mi­ami patent com­pany ac­cused of fraud by cus­tomers, played a role in try­ing to help the com­pany si­lence crit­ics by threat­en­ing le­gal ac­tion.

But it is Whi­taker’s out­spo­ken crit­i­cism of the Mueller in­ves­ti­ga­tion that has led Democrats to al­lege bias and spurred bi­par­ti­san ef­forts on Capi­tol Hill to pass leg­is­la­tion de­signed to pro­tect the spe­cial coun­sel and pro­hibit Trump from fir­ing him.

Sen. Su­san Collins (R-Maine) said Fri­day that she is “con­cerned” about Whi­taker’s com­ments about Mueller and the pa­ram­e­ters of his in­ves­ti­ga­tion. She called for leg­is­la­tion that stip­u­lates the spe­cial coun­sel could be fired only “for good cause and in writ­ing” — and only by a Se­nate­con­firmed Jus­tice Depart­ment of­fi­cial, which Whi­taker is not.

“Se­nate de­bate and pas­sage of this bill would send a pow­er­ful mes­sage that Mr. Mueller must be able to com­plete his work unim­peded,” Collins said in a state­ment.

De­liv­er­ing the Demo­cratic Party’s weekly ad­dress, Sen. Chris Mur­phy (D-Conn.) said, “A func­tion­ing democ­racy re­quires Democrats and Repub­li­cans to come to­gether to take ac­tion next week to pro­tect spe­cial coun­sel Mueller’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion.”

“If we don’t, and Don­ald Trump is given li­cense to shut down an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into his own po­ten­tial wrong­do­ing, then our na­tion starts to de­volve into a ba­nana repub­lic,” Mur­phy said in his speech, which was re­leased Fri­day.

Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell (R-Ky.) pre­dicted Whi­taker would be “a very in­terim AG” and said his cham­ber would not con­sider leg­is­la­tion to pro­tect Mueller, be­cause “it isn’t nec­es­sary.”

“The Mueller in­ves­ti­ga­tion is not un­der threat,” McCon­nell told re­porters Fri­day in Frank­fort, Ky. “The pres­i­dent has said re­peat­edly he’s not go­ing to dis­miss the Mueller in­ves­ti­ga­tion.”

The cas­cade of events was set in mo­tion Wed­nes­day, the day af­ter the midterm elec­tions, when Trump forced Ses­sions to re­sign af­ter com­plain­ing bit­terly for more than a year that Ses­sions had not suf­fi­ciently pro­tected him from the Mueller in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

In re­plac­ing him, Trump passed over Rosen­stein, who had been over­see­ing the Rus­sia probe and who White House ad­vis­ers say the pres­i­dent does not fully trust. In­stead, Trump tapped Whi­taker, who as a le­gal com­men­ta­tor opined ex­ten­sively about the Rus­sia probe.

Whi­taker said on CNN that he could en­vi­sion a sce­nario where Ses­sions was re­placed and his suc­ces­sor “just re­duces [Mueller’s] bud­get to so low that his in­ves­ti­ga­tion grinds to al­most a halt.” He also wrote in an on­line col­umn for CNN — un­der the head­line “Mueller’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion of Trump is go­ing too far” — that the pres­i­dent was “ab­so­lutely cor­rect” to sug­gest that Mueller would be cross­ing a red line by ex­am­in­ing the fi­nances of Trump and his fam­ily.

Mean­while, an au­dio record­ing has cir­cu­lated on­line in which Whi­taker ex­presses doubt about any Rus­sian in­fer­ence in elec­tions at all. “The left is try­ing to sow this the­ory that es­sen­tially Rus­sians in­ter­fered with the U.S. elec­tion, which has been proven false,” Whi­taker said. “They did not have any im­pact in the elec­tion.”

That state­ment di­rectly con­flicts with the con­clu­sion of U.S. in­tel­li­gence agen­cies that Rus­sia in­ter­fered in the elec­tion to help elect Trump and the Jus­tice Depart­ment’s in­dict­ments of more than two dozen al­leged Rus­sian agents for in­ter­fer­ence.

In­side the Jus­tice Depart­ment, there is con­sid­er­able re­sis­tance to Whi­taker, and some of­fi­cials there say they think he is wholly un- qual­i­fied to be act­ing at­tor­ney gen­eral.

Many in the build­ing are con­cerned about in­fight­ing, not­ing that while Whi­taker was serv­ing as chief of staff to Ses­sions he spoke pri­vately with Trump about tak­ing over as at­tor­ney gen­eral and did not dis­close the con­ver­sa­tion to Ses­sions. A per­son fa­mil­iar with the mat­ter said Ses­sions was sur­prised when The Wash­ing­ton Post first re­ported on Whi­taker and Trump’s dis­cus­sion.

Whi­taker also had been seen as gun­ning for Rosen­stein’s job, which cre­ated awk­ward­ness among the depart­ment lead­er­ship, of­fi­cials said.

At the White House as well as the Jus­tice Depart­ment, se­nior aides were taken aback by news ac­counts of Whi­taker’s work on the ad­vi­sory board of Mi­amibased World Patent Mar­ket­ing, which was ac­cused of de­fraud­ing its cus­tomers. Of­fi­cials said they were par­tic­u­larly stunned by emails show­ing Whi­taker in­voked his for­mer job as a U.S. at­tor­ney to threaten a man who had com­plained about the com­pany.

Whi­taker also re­buffed an Oc­to­ber 2017 sub­poena from the Fed­eral Trade Com­mis­sion seek­ing his records re­lated to the com­pany, ac­cord­ing to two peo­ple with knowl­edge of the case.

Also un­der scru­tiny is Whi­taker’s work as U.S. at­tor­ney for the South­ern Dis­trict of Iowa. In one of its most pub­li­cized cases, Whi­taker’s of­fice brought charges against an openly gay Demo­cratic state sen­a­tor, Matt McCoy, for al­legedly us­ing his of­fice to ex­tort about $2,000 from a lo­cal com­pany that in­stalled mo­tion sen­sors in the homes of se­nior cit­i­zens to mon­i­tor their health.

McCoy said he be­lieved the case was mo­ti­vated be­cause of his pol­i­tics and sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion, and a jury found him not guilty. A Jus­tice Depart­ment spokesman said the case was brought on its mer­its, not be­cause of pol­i­tics. Still, for Whi­taker, the case ended in de­feat and harsh crit­i­cism in the lo­cal press.

The White House did not thor­oughly vet Whi­taker be­fore Trump ap­pointed him act­ing at­tor­ney gen­eral, be­cause he was “al­ready chief of staff,” ac­cord­ing to one White House of­fi­cial. This of­fi­cial said Whi­taker is un­likely to be re­moved from his in­terim post “un­less more comes out.”

In­side Trump’s or­bit, one of Whi­taker’s ad­vo­cates has been Leonard Leo, ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent of the Fed­er­al­ist So­ci­ety, who has vouched in­ter­nally for Whi­taker’s man­age­ment skills and told White House of­fi­cials that he would be a more de­ci­sive leader than Ses­sions, ac­cord­ing to a per­son fa­mil­iar with the mat­ter.

Leo did not know at the time he rec­om­mended Whi­taker to be Ses­sions’s chief of staff about his work for the sus­pect patent com­pany but has stuck by the act­ing at­tor­ney gen­eral this week, the per­son said.

Seek­ing to quell the in­ter­nal con­cerns and pub­lic doubts that have been raised about Whi­taker, Rosen­stein praised his new boss in brief re­marks to re­porters Fri­day in Alexan­dria, Va.

“I think he’s a su­perb choice for at­tor­ney gen­eral,” Rosen­stein said. “He cer­tainly un­der­stands the work, un­der­stands the pri­or­i­ties of the depart­ment. I think he’s go­ing to do a su­perb job as at­tor­ney gen­eral.” He added that he de­liv­ered the same mes­sage Thurs­day in a con­fer­ence call with pros­e­cu­tors across the coun­try.

Other of­fi­cials in­side the depart­ment said they viewed Whi­taker as a ca­pa­ble and hard-charg­ing man­ager who drew on his foot­ball ex­pe­ri­ence to try to mo­ti­vate peo­ple. Trump said Whi­taker was “a very strong per­son­al­ity — and I think that’s what they need.”

Jus­tice Depart­ment lawyers are brac­ing for the like­li­hood that they will face law­suits over the con­sti­tu­tion­al­ity of Whi­taker’s ap­point­ment. A Jus­tice Depart­ment of­fi­cial said lawyers feared that chal­lengers would be able to find a judge, at least at the dis­trict­court level, who would be friendly to chal­lenges over Whi­taker’s au­thor­ity — whether they had merit or not — and stir fur­ther anx­i­ety at the depart­ment.

Lawyers Neal K. Katyal and Ge­orge T. Con­way III, who have emerged as prom­i­nent crit­ics of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, ar­gued in a New York Times col­umn this week that Whi­taker’s ap­point­ment was un­con­sti­tu­tional be­cause the ap­point­ments clause of the Constitution re­quires “prin­ci­pal of­fi­cers” who re­port to the pres­i­dent be con­firmed by the Se­nate. Some other le­gal schol­ars dis­pute that ar­gu­ment.

Seiz­ing on some of their points, how­ever, Se­nate Mi­nor­ity Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) wrote a let­ter to Trump on Fri­day call­ing Whi­taker’s ap­point­ment “un­prece­dented” and ask­ing him to de­tail specif­i­cally why he had not let Rosen­stein, who has been con­firmed by the Se­nate, as­sume the role, as would have hap­pened by de­fault.

White House of­fi­cials said Whi­taker is un­likely to be nom­i­nated as the per­ma­nent at­tor­ney gen­eral, a po­si­tion that would re­quire Se­nate con­fir­ma­tion. Trump hinted as much when he ad­dressed re­porters Fri­day.

“We’ll see what hap­pens,” Trump said, adding that he is con­sid­er­ing a num­ber of can­di­dates. “I have some very, very good peo­ple. But, I mean, there’s no rush.”

De­vlin Bar­rett, Ros­alind S. Hel­der­man, Michael Kran­ish, Carol D. Leon­nig and John Wag­ner con­tributed to this re­port.

Matthew G. Whi­taker


Matthew G. Whi­taker at­tends an event at the Jus­tice Depart­ment in Au­gust when he was chief of staff to At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions.

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