U.S. President Donald Trump seemed to distance himself on Friday from his newly appointed acting attorney general Matt Whitaker, saying he doesn’t “know” the 49-year-old former U.S. attorney.
Speaking with reporters outside the White House before departing for Paris, the president said, “I don’t know Matt Whitaker,” but he also said Whitaker is “highly respected” among law enforcement officials.
William Gustoff, who co-founded a law firm with Whitaker in 2009 and remains friendly with him, said Trump’s comment may simply mean that the president doesn't "really know him,” not that the two are not acquainted with each other.
Other friends and associates of Whitaker said the former Iowa college football star has forged a close working relationship with Trump since his appointment last fall as chief of staff to then-attorney general Jeff Sessions.
WATCH: After Scrutiny, Trump Seems to Back Away from Acting Attorney General
Sessions’ chief of staff
The relationship developed as Whitaker began accompanying Sessions to White House meetings after joining the Justice Department from the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust (FACT), a conservative ethics monitoring group that has filed complaints against Democratic politicians.
Just how many times Whitaker and Trump have met remains unclear.
Charles Larson, a former chairman of the Iowa Republican Party who has known Whitaker since their college days at the University of Iowa more than 20 years ago, said Whitaker has briefed Trump and done “an impressive job.” The president “thinks highly” of Whitaker, Larson said.
“My observation is that Matt has a very strong relationship with the president, and this comes with conversations I’ve had with friends and others that work in the administration,” added Larson, who also served as U.S. ambassador to Latvia under former president George W. Bush.
Trump’s choice of Whitaker to take the helm of the Justice Department and oversee special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election sparked a pushback from congressional Democrats and even some prominent Republicans.
'A great guy'
Trump’s assertion that he doesn’t know Whitaker directly contradicts what he told Fox News last month, when he said, “I mean, I know Matt Whitaker” and that he is “a great guy.” CNN also reported that Whitaker has visited the White House a dozen or more times since becoming Sessions’ chief of staff and that he had a good relationship with the president.
The White House doesn’t release lists of visitors. A Justice Department spokeswoman did not respond to questions about the number of times Whitaker has met with and briefed Trump or members of his administration.
Whitaker's future at the helm of the department, however, appeared in doubt, with several other candidates under consideration for the permanent top job.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell predicted Friday that a permanent replacement could be named soon for Whitaker, a conservative activist who has frequently voiced skepticism about Mueller’s probe and insisted there was no evidence of collusion between Trump’s campaign officials and the Russians.
“I think this will be a very interim AG (attorney general),” McConnell said.
Trump hasn’t revealed who he has in mind for the top job but nearly a dozen prospective candidates' names have cropped up in recent days, including Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, outgoing Republican Congressman Trey Gowdy, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie and Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi.
John Malcolm, a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research group with close ties to the White House, said it's possible Trump will nominate Whitaker for the top post if he “does a really great job” as acting attorney general.
Whitaker’s appointment came after Trump forced out Sessions following months of complaining about the attorney general’s decision, just weeks into office, to recuse himself from oversight of the Russia probe. Trump blamed the recusal for Mueller’s appointment.
Because Sessions had recused himself, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein supervised Mueller’s investigation. Now, the task has fallen to Whitaker, and Democrats are demanding that he, too, should recuse himself because of his past criticism of the Mueller investigation. Whitaker’s defenders, though, say there is no reason for him to step aside.
Whitaker was appointed under the Federal Vacancies Reform Act, a 1998 law that allows the president to appoint any senior government official as acting head of an agency for up to 210 days. But some constitutional scholars have questioned the legality of the appointment, citing a constitutional requirement that the attorney general must be approved by the Senate.
Brenna Bird, a Republican county prosecutor in Iowa who worked at Whitaker’s former law firm, praised Whitaker as a “highly respected” former U.S. attorney who has earned the president’s trust.
“Obviously, the president has a great deal of trust in him to put him in charge at this time,” Bird said. “And I know he’s met with the president along with the former attorney general several times as well. I don’t think President Trump would choose him for this job if he didn’t think he was up to it, and he is.”