WASHINGTON - Key U.S. Democratic lawmakers vowed Sunday they would try to protect the investigation of President Donald Trump's 2016 campaign's links to Russia from interference by his new acting attorney general, Matthew Whitaker, who often attacked the probe before Trump named him to oversee it.
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said he would attempt to attach legislation to a must-pass government spending bill next month to keep the government from a partial shutdown to require that special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation be permitted to be completed unimpeded.
"There's no reason that legislation shouldn't pass," Schumer told news network CNN. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell has opposed stand-alone legislation to protect Mueller, saying he has no reason to believe Trump will fire Mueller, even though the U.S. leader has often assailed the investigation as a "witch hunt," a view echoed by Whitaker.
Schumer added, "I believe there are enough Republicans who will support us" in adding the Mueller protection measure to the budget legislation. Schumer said the Mueller legislation was needed because "there is every reason to believe there will be interference" by Whitaker, whom he called an "extreme partisan."
Democratic Congressman Jerrold Nadler, set to become chairman of the House Judiciary Committee when Democrats assume control of the House of Representatives in January, said the panel's first mission then would be to call Whitaker to testify at a hearing, via a subpoena if necessary, about his "expressed hostility to the investigation."
Nadler called Whitaker "a complete political lackey" and said Trump appointed a "totally unqualified hatchet man to destroy the investigation."
But Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway dismissed concerns about Whitaker's past comments about the Mueller probe, saying "there's no evidence to me" that he "knows anything about the ongoing Mueller investigation."
Her husband, lawyer George Conway, wrote in a newspaper column last week that Whitaker had been illegally named, claiming that Whitaker needed Senate confirmation as does the head of any Cabinet agency. But Kellyanne Conway brushed off her husband's contention, saying that "spouses disagree everyday." Trump accused George Conway of trying to get "publicity for himself."
The latest Democratic concerns about protecting Mueller arose last week when Trump fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions, after criticizing him for more than a year for recusing himself from oversight of the Mueller probe. Trump then named Whitaker, Sessions's chief of staff, to replace him, at least for the moment, as the country's top law enforcement official.
Before joining the Justice Department last year, Whitaker said in commentary on CNN he could envision 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 then cut funding for Mueller's investigation and his "investigation grinds almost to a halt."
Whitaker suggested Mueller's probe amounted to a "fishing expedition."
But he has given no indication he plans to recuse himself from oversight of Mueller, saying he was "committed to leading a fair [Justice] Department with the highest ethical standards, that upholds the rule of law, and seeks justice for all Americans.” Sessions had handed Mueller oversight to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, recusing himself because of his support for Trump in the 2016 election and contacts he had with Russia's then ambassador to Washington during the run-up to the voting two years ago.
Mueller has secured guilty pleas or convictions of several Trump campaign officials, but there is no deadline set for his conclusion of the investigation.