WASHINGTON - Matthew Whitaker, appointed by U.S. President Donald Trump as the acting attorney general and now overseeing the investigation of Trump's 2016 campaign links to Russia, has often echoed the president's verbal attacks on the probe.
The 49-year-old Whitaker joined the Justice Department last year as chief of staff to then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions after often voicing objections about special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation into the Russia meddling and whether Trump, as president, obstructed justice by trying to thwart the probe.
Trump ousted Sessions on Wednesday after criticizing him for more than a year over his recusal from oversight of the Mueller probe, leaving Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to oversee the investigation. Now Whitaker is overseeing the probe he has criticized, prompting calls from opposition Democrats that he recuse himself from oversight of Mueller.
Whitaker has given no indication he plans to relinquish control of the Justice Department probe, saying he was "committed to leading a fair Department with the highest ethical standards, that upholds the rule of law, and seeks justice for all Americans.”
White House adviser Kellyanne Conway said Thursday she sees no reason for Whitaker to recuse himself from the investigation for comments he made as a private citizen.
Whitaker, a one-time federal prosecutor in the midwestern state of Iowa and football player at the state's flagship university, the University of Iowa, has suggested ways the Mueller probe could be curtailed without firing Mueller, including virtually eliminating funding for it.
In a July 2017 commentary on the news network CNN, before he joined the Justice Department, Whitaker offered a scenario in which Trump might fire Sessions and replace him with a temporary attorney general, which is now what has happened. Whitaker, in the television remarks, suggested the replacement could cut funding for Mueller's investigation and his "investigation grinds almost to a halt."
Whitaker also tweeted a month later that his followers should read a Philadelphia Inquirer opinion article titled, "Note to Trump's lawyer: Do not cooperate with Mueller's lynch mob."
Scope of probe questioned
In an opinion column for CNN, Whitaker said that Trump was "absolutely correct" in saying that if Mueller started investigating the finances of Trump and his family, it would be crossing beyond the scope of the investigation related to the 2016 election. News accounts at the time said Mueller was looking into financial reports linking the vast Trump business empire to Russia and its possible connection to the 2016 campaign.
"Mueller has come up to a red line in the Russia 2016 election-meddling investigation that he is dangerously close to crossing," Whitaker wrote.
Whitaker called reports of the expanded investigation "deeply concerning to me. It does not take a lawyer or even a former federal prosecutor like myself to conclude that investigating Donald Trump's finances or his family's finances falls completely outside of the realm of his 2016 campaign and allegations that the campaign coordinated with the Russian government or anyone else. That goes beyond the scope of the appointment of the special counsel."
Since then, federal judges have ruled that Mueller has not exceeded his authority, saying the scope of his appointment as special counsel allowed him to investigate "any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation," a view Whitaker had rejected in the CNN column.
Whitaker said, "It is time for Rosenstein, who is the acting attorney general for the purposes of this investigation, to order Mueller to limit the scope of his investigation to the four corners of the order appointing him special counsel."
"If he doesn't," Whitaker wrote, "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."
Whitaker said an expanded investigation "would raise serious concerns" that the probe "was a mere witch hunt," a description of the Mueller investigation that Trump has often expressed.
Whitaker ran for a Republican Senate nomination in Iowa in 2014, but finished fourth behind Joni Ernst, who went on to win the general election for the Senate seat.
Critics of Whitaker's appointment voiced immediate concern that he would look to thwart the Mueller probe.
Congressman Adam Schiff of California said, "President Trump just removed Jeff Sessions. He wants an attorney general to serve his interest, not the public. Mueller's investigation and the independence of the (Department of Justice) must be protected. Whitaker and any nominee must commit to doing both."